Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

A film review that hits home-'The Internet's own son'


Pamela Ruben riding her bike on the long driveway to the house where she grew up and later was home to Aaron Swartz. The house shown is not her/his home, just one along the way.

Recently, I viewed the compelling documentary "The Internet's Own Son," about the life and untimely death of Internet activist, Aaron Swartz, and it hit home in a couple of unexpected ways. Not only was Swartz raised in a Jewish family in my hometown of Highland Park, Illinois, but coincidentally, we both grew up in the same house, 15 years apart. Aaron's parents, Susan and Robert Swartz, currently reside in the house I consider my own childhood home from 1970-1986. According to Zillow, the ravine-side Highland Park home last sold in 2000, so Swartz's family would have lived there from the time he was about 12 years old until the present.

I briefly met the Swartz family sometime around 2004 or 2005 during Thanksgiving week, when I was back in Highland Park visiting my famly. I knocked on the door of the Ravinia area home, with my husband and two small children in tow, hoping for a peek inside. A kindly man (who must have been Mr. Swartz) opened the door, and graciously gave us a tour of the entire house from top to bottom, far exceeding my expectations of an inside peek. I met Mrs. Swartz as well, and one or two of the Swartz boys. I remember enquiring which of the boys had taken over my old bedroom, but I was far more captivated with my old house, than by the new family who dwelt inside. I wouldn't see the Swartz family again for more than a decade, until they appeared on my television screen when I rented the aforementioned documentary. Though the documentary afforded both rare and surreal glimpses into my own past, the larger tale of Aaron Swartz's desire for an open-access Internet, dominated even my own viewing experience.

The "Internet's Own Son" was directed by Brian Knappenberger, and debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Knappenberger served as the documentary's narrator, and his sympathetic tone was largely supported by facts and expert testimony. The director's remarks were supplemented by extensive commentary from Swartz's family, friends, and colleagues.

The viewer is first introduced to Swartz, and his unique brand of genius, through the use of home video clips. In his first few moments on screen, a toddler-sized Swartz reads aloud to the camera, carrying a weathered copy of "My Family Seder," stealing the scene with his precocious smile. The documentary establishes Swartz as a member of a loving and supportive family, and touches upon the struggles brought on by early genius. Robert Swartz, revealed that his son "took off on the computer at two or three years old," and began programming from an early age. Swartz's two younger brothers, Noah and Ben, recounted tales of their big brother as both teacher and mentor. Ben shared that Aaron spoke of programming as "magic." The eldest Swartz used his "magical" coding skills to create a website that was an aggregate for information, preceding Wikipedia, for which he was awarded the prestigious ArsDigita Prize at age 13.

Swartz's intellect was always far ahead of his chronological age. At the age of 13, he was an early developer of RSS feeds, where he "helped build the plumbing of modern hypertext." The precocious teen began to associate with Internet legends Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, and Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons (which Swartz would help code), a non-profit that promoted idea sharing through creative copyright use. Swartz was profoundly influenced by the fact that Berners-Lee had taken his concept of the World Wide Web, and given it freely to the public, creating access to the Internet for all.

Meanwhile, Swartz was still in high school, where he felt "unhappy, and that homework was a sham and busywork." His discoveries on the computer led him down a "path of questioning." The gifted teen-ager was most passionate about copyright, and the places where the "Internet and copyright collide."

In 2004, Swartz left Highland Park for Stanford. As an 18-year-old student, he created the start-up Infogami which later merged with Reddit, and was ultimately bought by Conde Nast Publishers (owner of Wired magazine). Following the buyout, Swartz dropped out of Stanford to work for Wired magazine. Noah Swartz shared that although his brother became very rich by the age of 19, he remained unchanged. Money had never had been a motivator for Aaron, who was most comfortable living in a small apartment and wearing jeans.

Corporate America did not agree with Swartz, and he left his well-paying job to pursue his first calling, computer activism (aka Hacktivism). Swartz advocated for transparency on the Internet, and open access to library and scholarly files for the public good. His strong desire for an open-access Internet would take over his career, and would become the source of major legal problems, and even lead to his death.

In 2011, Aaron hacked into the JStor library at MIT to liberate millions of scholarly files that he felt should be available through open access. The hacking was detected by MIT, and Swartz was caught illegally downloading the files. He was arrested and charged with four felonies. Swartz would be haunted by the specter of prosecution and prison time until his death by suicide in 2013.

Though JStor dropped the charges against Swartz, the government continued to aggressively pursue the case. Swartz's friends and family believe that his case was being used as an example, serving as a deterrent to ward off future trouble from computer activists. If convicted, Swartz could have faced up to 35 years in prison and an onerous fine. His supporters felt the associated penalties were unduly harsh, and not befitting of his victimless crime, which some called, "taking out too many books from the library." Later, Swartz was offered but refused a plea deal, as a felony record would curtail his pursuits in political and computer activism.

At this time, my own sympathies were largely swayed in favor of the beleaguered computer activist. Swartz seemed to be a victim of the political climate, in which the government was toughening up on computer crimes. He was aggressively pursued for a crime in which the complainant was not seeking any damages. To make matters worse, Swartz was later charged with a total of 13 felonies, mostly stemming from the outmoded "Computer Fraud and Abuse Act" (CFAA), passed in 1986, when the computerized world was a different place.

My inside knowledge of Swartz's family home came in handy as Noah Swartz recounted a harrowing tale of the FBI conducting surveillance on their Highland Park home, when a government vehicle cruised up and down their drive. The Swartz home is not easily monitored, as it is hidden on all sides by neighboring homes, and is not visible from the street. The long and narrow driveway that leads up to the recessed English-style cottage is both wooded and foreboding. No one drives down the imposing drive unintentionally, as there is no turn around, and the only way out is in reverse. I can recall taking out several bushes and fence posts as an inexperienced teen driver while backing down the narrow roadway. Therefore, the FBI meant business when they traveled the length of the family drive to see if Aaron was present.

Swartz remained politically active during the two years the government took to build a case against him, and was an instrumental player in defeating the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Despite his successes, the pressure of his impending trial and prosecution began to build. Swartz's isolation from his friends and family began to increase. His mother, Susan, added that the threat of jail time began to weigh upon him. His father, Robert, shared that legal fees were in the millions of dollars and mounting. Aaron became concerned about becoming a burden to those closest to him. On Jan. 11, 2013, Swartz was found dead in his apartment, a victim of suicide by hanging.

Following his death, mourning took place on twitter and online. Aaron's friends and family blamed the overzealous government prosecutors for his death. Robert Swartz concluded, "Can we still do something, given what's happened, to make the world a better place? That's the question one can ask." Swawrtz's brother added, "Aaron really could do magic. (Let's) make sure the magic doesn't end in his death."

Since Swartz's death Congressman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Zoe Lofgren (D- San Jose) are working on reforming the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act with (CFAA) with the introduction of "Aaron's Law."

I highly recommend viewing "The Internet's Own Son" to discover more about the legacy of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who never stopped fighting for what he truly believed.

"The Internet's Own Son" is available through Brighthouse on Demand and on the Internet.

Pamela Ruben a writer and educator currently residing in the Orlando area. She is publisher and editor of CentralFloridaChatter.com.


Reader Comments

ninotchka writes:

That Ms. Rubin is writing this review is an example of one of life's strange coincidences. imho, her review is spot on. I urge all reading it to view this truly provocative documentary. It is easily found and accessed online. A very important correction: the title of the film is The Internet's Own BOY.


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