Arts & Events

FILM REVIEW: Aaron Swartz:
The Internet's Own Boy
Opens July 4 at San Francisco's Roxie Theater

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Friday July 04, 2014 - 08:09:00 AM

It is only right that the filmed story of Aaron Swartz' amazing life and tragic death opens on Independence Day. This boy-genius, Internet pioneer, free speech activist and information liberator changed everyone's lives in many ways but when his idealism and organizing skills clashed with a corporate game-plan to secure massive profits by seizing electronic control of the flow of ideas, two things happened: (1) Against all odds, he thwarted Big Data's plot and (2) the US government pulled out all stops to destroy him. 


Aaron helped create Reddit and the Creative Commons copyright system; he helped launch the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Awash in "buy-out" money, he left the East Coast for San Francisco and a short-lived gig with WIRED magazine that ended when Aaron tired of the "grey office monotony." 

His life took a dramatic turn when a friend alerted him to a little-known piece of federal legislation called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The corporate-bankrolled legislation was considered a shoo-in by Washington pols and lobbyists but Aaron rightly saw it as a threat to Internet freedom. 

There is a saying that "Information wants to be free." In this case, information needed a helping hand. Aaron founded a group called Demand Progress and, against all odds, wound up leading an energized popular resistance that overturned Big Data's apple cart. The SOPA Goliath was defeated by millions of electronically connected Davids. 

Suddenly, Aaron Swartz was a force to be reckoned with. And this film details—in chilling, agonizing detail—how government investigators targeted an idealistic young man with proven political power. They finally brought him down by accusing him of "stealing" electronic versions of academic articles stored by MIT and controlled by a profit-making corporation that charged users to read the articles. (Under this business model, the scholars who actually wrote the articles were not compensated.) 

Aaron may have been a bit of a pain as a chubby pre-teen, lecturing adult computer geeks at college seminars, but when he hit his teens, he turned into a lean, keen polemic machine. He was instantly charismatic, with a compelling voice and a passion for ideas that was soul-deep and palpable. Whether he was shaved and combed or (more likely) scruffy and rumpled, you couldn't take your eyes off him. The Internet's Own Boy captures Aaron's energy and enthusiasm in videotapes of his many impassioned interviews but the film also benefits from the inclusion of scores of intimate snapshots contributed by friends, coworkers, admirers and the two remarkable young women in his life – Quinn Norton and Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. 

As the feds close in and tighten the net, you can see the emotional pressures building in the voices and faces of Aaron's parents, his closest friends, his colleagues (including Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig), and his defenders. Aaron's apartment is raided. He is arrested, thrown into lockdown and threatened with years in a prison cell. For a free spirit like Aaron, this was (quite literally) a maddening proposition. In one raw and emotionally charged interview, Aaron's girlfriend Quinn Norton visibly vibrates with anguish and rage as she recalls the pain the government's relentless persecution brought into their lives. 

Director Brian Knappnberger's harrowing and moving testament to Aaron's life pulls no punches. It shows what can happen when you "speak truth to power." If you pose a threat to established political and corporate power, you run the risk of being destroyed – either convicted for violating a federal law or driven to helpless despair as the government's noose draws ever tighter around your neck. 

Aaron refused to cut a deal with the government prosecutors. As a result, he was facing many years of imprisonment. On January 11, 2013, Aaron Swartz committed suicide. He was 26 years old. 

Director Brian Knappenberger's Statement:  

Aaron's story reached far beyond the Internet communities in which he was a celebrity. It also struck a chord with people who were outraged about government overreach, both technological and in our criminal justice system. 

Criminalization has become our knee-jerk response to pretty much anything that scares us or that we don't understand. This is true for everything from the war on drugs to terrorism, but even includes areas like open access to information. 

This is the moment when we need to make sure our values and civil liberties are stitched into the code our networked world. Geeks and hackers already knew this but, thanks to Edward Snowden and people like Aaron Swartz, now everyone is beginning to realize it. Without basic civil liberties and freedom of speech, all the other causes you feel strongly about can't get solved. 

Aaron's story embodies all of this and more. But his actions while he was alive also demonstrated the potential of technological tools to transform our lives and democracy for the better. His loss shows us what we lose when we are tone deaf about technology and its relationship to our civil liberties. But it also shows us how we can do better. 


"How We Stopped SOPA"  

Aaron Swartz' Galvanizing Keynote Speech  

At F2C: Freedom to Connect 2012, in Washington DC on May 21 2012. 






The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto






November 8, 1986 - Born in Chicago, Illinois - son of Susan and Robert Swartz 

Childhood - attended North Shore Country Day School, a small private school in Winnetka, Illinois. Robert Swartz founded a software company. Aaron immersed in Internet culture. 

3 years old - Self-taught himself how to read 

Elementary School - Built ATM machine for school project 

12 years old - Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis which would plague him for the rest of his life 

13 years old - won second prize at ArsDigita, a competition for young people who create "useful, educational, and collaborative" noncommercial websites. Prize included a trip to MIT. 

14 years old - served on the RDF Core working group at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), authored RFC 3870. Helped develop the RSS Standard. "Agitated without cease - or compensation - for the free culture movement." 

2001 - Creative commons founded. 

2002 (age 16) - Aaron emails Lawrence Lessig with a suggestion on how to design certain creative commons licenses. 

2002 - Launch of Creative Commons Version 1.0 - with Larry Lessig, Aaron talks about metadata. "Represent bibliographical information in a machine readable format." Says about Aaron saying how could we fail when "we have this genius creating our infastructure." 

October 9, 2002, and on January 15, 2003 - Eldrid v. Ashcroft argument argued by Lawrence Lessig in front of the Supreme court. 

2004 (age 18) - enrolled at Stanford likely to be near Lessig, joining the class of ‘08 but wrote in his blog that he didn't "find it an intellectual atmosphere." Meets with Paul Graham, drops out of Stanford and moves to Boston within a year. 

March 2004 - Co-creator of Markdown. Gets involved in start-up world. Founded Infogami through Y Combinator - part of Y Combinator's first Summer Founders program. 

November, 2005 - at the suggestion of Y Combinator organizers, Infogami merges with Reddit. 

Summer 2006 - attends Wikimania with Richard Stallman 

Late 2006 - after months of negotiations, Reddit acquired by Condé Nast Publications, owners of Wired magazine. Swartz moves to San Francisco to work with Wired. It doesn't work out, he's asked to leave and not told why, said to be a "messy divorce" with other Reddit co-founders. Describes office life on his blog and why he never gets anything done; "You wake up in the morning, take some crushing public transit system or dodge oncoming traffic to get to work, grab some food, and then sit down at your desk" the "grey office monotony sneaks through." 

November 16, 2006 - Aaron blog post about public domain works - includes Kayle and Lofgren. 

September 2007 - with Simon Carstensen, Swartz launches Jottit. Becomes a fellow at Harvard University′s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics 

2008 - Swartz founded to aggregate data about politicians. 

December, 2008 - authors a Harvard Law Review paper with Shireen Barday which looked through thousands of law review articles looking for law professors who had been paid by industry patrons to write papers. 

Architected - the Internet Archive's free public catalog of books 

2008 - the federal court system briefly allowed free access to its court records system, Pacer (normally eight cents per page) Using a small PERL script, he pulled nearly 20 million pages of public court documents - now available for free on the Internet Archive. FBI investigates the PACER hack, but no charges are filed. 

2009 - Aaron took a month long vacation from the Internet 

January 2009 to August 2010 - From PCCC Aaron Swartz "contributed so much to the launch of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and our technology during our first 20 months, from January 2009 to August 2010 

October 5, 2009 - Aaron FOIA's his own FBI file 

2010 - founded Demand Progress, non-profit group that helped drive successful grassroots opposition to SOPA 

June, 2010 - Internet "Kill switch" initiated by Joseph Leiberman. Demand Progress fights against it. 

2010 - New Yorker article quotes Quinn Norton saying she spent most of 2010 keeping him away from suicide. 

September 24th, 2010 to January 6th, 2011 - Aaron accessed MIT's network to scrape an "extraordinary volume of articles" from the academic database JSTOR - after several attempts by JSTOR and MIT to block him, Swartz gained access to a restricted closet and directly hardwired his laptop to the network, leaving it there to pull data. 

September 24th, 2010 - Aaron Swartz buys an Acer laptop from a local computer store and registers it on the MIT campus under the fictitious name "Gary Host" with the client name "ghost laptop." 

September 24th & 25th, 2010 - According to indictment, working under the client name "Ghost laptop" Swartz uses the Acer laptop to run a program called "" which begins to download an "extraordinary volume of articles" from JSTOR. 

September 25th, 2010 EVENING - JSTOR blocks the IP address of Aaron's Acer laptop and stops the downloading. 

September 26th, 2010 - Swartz assigns his computer a different IP address and continues to mass download articles. By midday JSTOR had blocked that address and a broader range of IP addresses [known as the class C network], which took out JSTOR service for a large number of users at MIT. JSTOR notifies MIT. 

September 27th, 2010 - MIT blocks the MAC address - the unique identifier - of the Acer laptop's interface card and bans the "ghost laptop" from it's network entirely. MIT's access to JSTOR is restored. 

October 2nd, 2010 - the "ghost laptop" was back, this time Swartz had spoofed the MAC address. 

October 9th, 2010 - Swartz re-registers the computer under "Grace Host" and by the 9th was downloading articles again. JSTOR blocks the entire MIT network from its services for several days. 

November through December 2010 - Swartz physically installs a laptop in a wiring closet in the basement of Building 16 on the MIT campus and downloads another two million "articles, reviews, news stories, editorials and miscellaneous documents." He hides the laptop and a "succession" of external storage drives under a box in the closet. 

November 2, 2010 - US Elections. Taren says two days before is the first time she spent any time with Aaron. They met in Summer of 2009. 

December 26, 2010 – JSTOR informs MIT that it has detected additional excessive downloading (The message is not received until after the holiday break). Morning of January 4th, 2011 - MIT personnel found Swartz's laptop and connected a second computer to the network switch to monitor Swartz's activity. U.S. Secret Service took over the investigation. Secret Service agent Michael Prickett recommended MIT personnel leave Swartz's laptop in the closet for monitoring. Acquired data was given to the Secret Service. NOTE: MIT IT dept. calls MIT Police who in turn calls a Cambridge PD Detective who they've worked with before on computer issues. The SS agent shows up with the detective. 

January 5, 2011 – US Attorney's office opens criminal investigation of the accessing of MIT's network. 

January 6th, 2011 - Swartz enters the wiring closet to retrieve his computer, holding his bike helmet up to shield his face. He takes the computer and leaves the closet, tries to connect again from a different building. After chasing him down, MIT and Cambridge police with the help of special agent Prickett, arrested Swartz on charges of breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony. NOTE: He successfully connects the laptop in another building where it is discovered later that day and before his arrest. 

January 14, 2011 - Three MIT employees (two from IS&T, one from Libraries) are interviewed by an Assistant U.S. Attorney, a special agent of the U.S. Secret Service, and a Cambridge Police detective. 

January 27, 2011- First grand jury subpoena is served on MIT. Raid of Aaron's office and apartment 

February 2011 - Wisconsin labor union protests begin. Taren and Aaron meet each other there. She says she is flirting with him, but he's distracted. She doesn't realize at the time that he had just been arrested a few weeks before. 

February 4, 2011 - MIT's first production of documents in response to the January 27, 2011, subpoena. 

February 18, 2011 - MIT's second production of documents in response to the January 

27, 2011, subpoena. 

February 28, 2011 - MIT's third production of documents in response to the January 27, 

2011, subpoena. 

April 13, 2011 - MIT's final production of records in response to the January 27, 2011, 


May 6, 2011 - Heymann tells MIT's Office of the General Counsel (OGC) that Aaron Swartz rejected a plea offer, and the case would likely move forward as a felony charge. 

June 3, 2011 - JSTOR settles its potential civil claims with Aaron Swartz. 

June 6, 2011 - MIT retains outside counsel experienced in criminal law. 

June 13, 2011 - Robert Swartz reaches out to the incoming Director of the MIT Media Lab, where he is a consultant, for assistance in dealing with MIT's administration and OGC on behalf of his son. 

June 13, 2011 - OGC responds via email to defense attorney William Kettlewell, informing him that MIT is not taking a position on whether Swartz should be prosecuted. 

June 21, 2011 - A conversation with the lead prosecutor leads OGC to infer that MIT's views on the case will have little impact on the prosecution going forward. 

June 24, 2011 - Second grand jury subpoena is served on MIT. 

July 6, 2011 - MIT's production of records in response to June 24, 2011, subpoena. 

Summer of 2011 - Starts to date Taren Stinebrickner - Kaufman. Assures her that depression he wrote about on blog was a thing of the past. "started doing the dishes for the first time" - (from memorial.) 

July 14, 2011 - INITIAL INDICTMENT federal prosecutors charged Swartz with four felony counts, including wire fraud, computer fraud, theft of information from a computer and recklessly damaging a computer 

July 19th, 2011 - Aaron Swartz voluntarily appears at the federal courthouse and is arrested. He is released on $100,000 bail 

July 19th, 2011 - JSTOR says in a statement that they "had no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter." 

July 19, 2011 - Demand Progress publishes article on Internet and solicits statements and signatures in support of Aaron Swartz. 

September 14, 2011 - Robert Swartz meets with MIT's Chancellor and an attorney from the OGC, and is told MIT's position is that of "neutrality." 

October 25, 2011 - Martin Weinberg takes over as Aaron Swartz's new defense attorney. 

October 27, 2011 - Andrew Good withdraws as defense attorney for Aaron Swartz. 


November 30, 2011 - Arraigned in Middlesex superior court - pleads not guilty SOPA 

May 12, 2011 - PIPA introduced in the Senate 

May 26th, - 2011 - PIPA Passes Senate judiciary committee by unanimous voice vote 

June 30, 2011 - Gamer community begins to get involved, putting protests on YouTube. 

Demand Progress call to action. 

October 25th, 2011 

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Center For Rights on Vimeo


October 26th, 2011 - SOPA introduced in the House with strong support 

November 16th, 2011 - House Judiciary holds meetings on SOPA, and the first major day of protest, called "American Censorship Day is held. 1 million people contact congress in one day and 2 million people sign petitions. Lofgren participates and censors her own page. 

Nov 29 - Dec 15, 2011 - calls continue 

Dec 22, 2011 - Large scale protests against GoDaddy for support of SOPA and PIPA. Users transfer their domains away from GoDaddy. By Dec 29th, GoDaddy had caved and had reversed their support. 

January 5th, 2012 - In person meetings with Senators 

Friday, Jan. 13, 2012: SOPA and PIPA Authors Remove DNS Provisions 

Monday, Jan. 16, 2012: The White House Takes a Stand 

Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012: Wikipedia Announces Blackout, Google Plans to Censor Logo 

Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012: The Day The Internet Went Dark 

Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012: SOPA and PIPA Enter the Mainstream 

Friday, Jan. 20, 2012: Congress Tables SOPA and PIPA 

March 8th, 2012 - State drops charges against Swartz. These include anything involving the physical break-in. 

April 25, 2012 - William Kettlewell and Martin Weinberg meet with MIT's outside counsel. 

August 9, 2012 - MIT's outside counsel speaks with Heymann, communicating MIT's positions on various issues concerning the prosecution of Aaron Swartz. 

September 12, 2012 - Robert Swartz again meets with MIT's Chancellor and an attorney from the OGC. 

Sept. 12, 2012 - prosecutors filed a superseding indictment with thirteen felony counts - increasing Swartz's maximum penalty to 50 years in prison. Number of counts against him goes from 4 to 13. 

September 18, 2012 - Eleven MIT employees (nine from IS&T, one from Libraries, and one from MIT Police) are interviewed by two Assistant U.S. Attorneys, a special agent of the U.S. Secret Service, and a Cambridge Police detective. 

September 24, 2012 - Swartz Arraigned on superseding indictment, pleads not guilty to all counts. 

September 28, 2012 - Martin Weinberg and William Kettlewell meet with MIT's Chancellor, General Counsel, and outside counsel, asking MIT to meet with the USAO in support of Aaron Swartz, and describing the motions they will file to suppress evidence, including that the motions will allege that MIT collected or produced information unlawfully. 

October 5th, 2012 - Defense attorney Martin Weinberg files five motions to suppress evidence and one motion to dismiss the indictment. 

October 16, 2012 - Two MIT employees from IS&T are interviewed by two Assistant U.S. Attorneys and a Cambridge Police detective. 

October 26, 2012 - MIT's outside counsel notifies Martin Weinberg that MIT is willing to attend a meeting with the U.S. Attorney's Office, and of what MIT is willing to say, and not willing to say. 

October 31, 2012 - Martin Weinberg withdraws as Aaron Swartz's defense counsel. 

November 6, 2012 - Elliot Peters notifies MIT's outside counsel that Aaron Swartz's defense no longer seeks its participation in a meeting with the U.S. Attorney's Office. 

November 8, 2012 - Elliot Peters and Michael J. Pineault assume representation of Aaron Swartz in federal court. 

November 16th, 2012 - Government files opposition to motions to suppress. Response "included a panoply of 22 exhibits... including photographs... argues that many of Swartz's motions to suppress evidence are without merit..." 

December 7, 2012 - Swartz's legal team ask to delay his trial from February to June and filed responses to the government's replies to his motions to suppress evidence. Ortiz and Heymann charged Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act - 29-year-old law, notable for being out of date and broadly interpretable. 

December 11, 2012 – Two MIT employees, one from MIT Libraries and one from IS&T, are interviewed by an attorney and an expert witness for Aaron Swartz. 

December 14, 2012 - A hearing on the previously filed motions to dismiss and suppress is scheduled for January 25, 2013. 

January 3, 2013 - Five MIT employees (three from IS&T, one from MIT Police, and one from Human Resources) are interviewed by two Assistant U.S. Attorneys and a Cambridge Police detective. 

January 4, 2013 - Four MIT employees (three from IS&T and one from Libraries) are interviewed by two Assistant U.S. Attorneys and a Cambridge Police detective. 

January 9, 2013 – Prosecution rejects a plea deal that would have kept AS out of prison. 

January 9, 2013 – JSTOR announces an archive of 1200+ articles will be made available for free reading by the public. 

January 11, 2013 – A motion is filed to supplement the Oct 5 motions to suppress Evidence "with a critical document only recently produced to Swartz by the Government." [This is the email between Heymann and the Secret Service "that would have helped suppress illegally-acquired evidence"] 

January 11th, 2013 - Aaron Swartz, age 26, commits suicide in Brooklyn, New York. 

January 12, 2013 – White House petitions to remove Carmen Ortiz from office and to fire Steve Heymann are created. 

January 13, 2013 - Anonymous attacks MIT with a DoS attack, defaces websites. 

January 13, 2013 - Hal Ableson chosen to lead MIT report 

January 14th, 2013 - Carmen Ortiz dismisses the Swartz case (The judge was Judge Nathanial M. Gordon but it is the prosecution who actually dismisses the case.) 

January 14ish, 2013 – Christina Sterling, spokesperson for Carmen Ortiz's office says they will not comment on the case because they want to respect the privacy of the family. 

January 15, 2013 – Petition to remove Carmen Oritz from office reaches threshold needed 

January 15, 2013 – The White House announces they're raising the threshold of petition signatures needed to solicit a response from 25k to 11k but says it will not be applied retroactively to pre-existing petitions. 

January 15, 2013 – House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa announces investigation into the Justice Department's prosecution of AS. 

January 15, 2013 - Zoe Lofgren announces she will introduce a bill, "Aaron's Law," to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. 

January 16, 2013 – Carmen Ortiz releases statement on AS death, says that prosecution was appropriate even though there was no evidence that AS "committed his acts for personal financial gain." Claims her office never sought a max sentence. 

January 18, 2013 – Senator John Cornyn (R - TX) sends a "sharply worded letter" to Attorney General Eric Holder questioning DOJ's prosecution of AS. 

January 19th, 2013 - Memorial at the Great Hall at New York's Cooper Union 

January 25, 2013 – Today would have been the hearing on previously filed motions to 

suppress evidence. 

January 28, 2013 – Darrel Issa (R) and Elijah Cummings (D) send a joint letter to Attorney General posing question about the prosecution and requesting a briefing. 

January 28, 2013 – Elliot Peters files a complaint with the DOJ's Office of Professional Responsibility accusing Heymann of misconduct alleging that he withheld an email that would have helped suppress illegally acquired evidence. Accuses him of "violating his duty of candor to the court" and of using "extreme" plea offers to "coerce" a deal. 

February 4, 2013 – The trial was originally scheduled to begin today. 

February 9th/10th, 2013 – "Fire Steve Heymann" petition reaches threshold required be 

answered by White House. 

February 15, 2013 – DOJ gives private briefing to House Oversight Committee staffers. 

February 27ish, 2013 – Darrell Issa says in an interview that he plans to expand his 


March 6, 2013 – Attorney General Eric Holder defends prosecution before a Senate 

committee (The hearing covered a variety of topics – not just Swartz). 


NOTE: Because this film is a production of Participant Films, after you watch it, you can take action by signing a petition. 

Tell the DOJ: #NoMoreAarons! Sign the Petition for Better Oversight for Federal Attorney Misconduct 

NOTE: Although the film is not being screened in Berkeley (it was screened for three days in June at the SF IndieFest), you can watch it online and for free – the way Aaron would have wanted it. The film is available on Vimeo, iTunes, Google, Xbox, Movies on Demand and elsewhere. 



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