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Originally published Thursday, July 10, 2014 at 3:15 PM

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‘Internet’s Own Boy’ traces tragic life of Aaron Swartz

A review of “The Internet’s Own Boy,” a documentary about Web social-justice and information-access activist Aaron Swartz. Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald grants it three stars out of four.


Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review ★★★  

‘The Internet’s Own Boy,’ a documentary directed by Brian Knappenberger. 105 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

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“He was the Internet’s own boy, and the old world killed him,” says a friend, sadly.

Aaron Swartz developed a version of Wikipedia at the age of 12, and at 14 helped to develop RSS standards. Both prodigy and visionary, his life was filled with accomplishment — until his suicide, at the age of 26.

Swartz had become a crusader for social justice and information access; among other beliefs, he strongly felt that academic research (much of it funded by public money at state universities) should be available to all. To that end, he hacked into an academic database, downloading millions of articles. Soon, he was the subject of felony charges and federal investigation, seemingly wildly disproportionate to his crime. Depressed, persecuted and facing a maximum penalty of 50 years in prison, he ended his own life.

Brian Knappenberger’s thorough, straightforward documentary about Swartz’s brief life is fascinating, maddening, and ultimately very sad. We see home movies of a bright-eyed, beaming little boy; hear his brother affectionately describing how this “twerp” had an astonishing technical imagination from the beginning; and listen as friends and former colleagues feel their way through Swartz’s life story, trying to understand what happened and ease a still-raw pain. (A former girlfriend, who cooperated with prosecution and clearly is still struggling with that decision, emerges as a fascinating study in human nature.) Ultimately, Swartz is seen as a tragic work-in-progress; a young man still working out precisely who he was and what he cared about most. “I want to make the world a better place,” he once wrote, but only just got started.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com



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