aaron swartz, the internets own boy, the internets own boy aaron swartzHot Docs

The 2014 Pulitzer Prize was handed over to the Guardian and the Washington Post for coverage of documents released by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. He saw systemic problems within the world of information-gathering and privacy policy at his agency, and captured the imaginations of the world with his tales of general 'Big Brother'-type behaviour online.

The coverage was extensive, and like all great journalism, was executed with courage, candour and critical thinking, all while producing effective change in the culture. Some see the award as a disgrace, an indirect tip of the hat from the Pulitzer jury to Snowden himself. How can one man be a National Security criminal and a hero at the same time?

This year's opening night film at Hot Docs, "The Internet's Own Boy," explores that very question with the 90-minute tale of another info activist named Aaron Swartz. Director Brian Knappenberger has been awarded opening night film status after riling up the crowds in 2012 with "We Are Legion: The Story of Hacktivists."

Although fairly one-sided, "Legion" is a powerful doc that profiled the most powerful group of anarchist hackers online, Anonymous. In his latest project, Kanppenberger sticks to his guns, and ups his game with a more focused look at one man's battle to make a better Internet and a better world.

Aaron Swartz took his own life in 2013. He was just 25. The how and why he came to the grim decision is what this film puts into focus. Interviews with friends, family, love interests, co-workers and fellow thinkers tell his story. Brothers Noah and Ben, along with Aaron's father, offer excellent contributions early in the film, painting a picture of a brilliant mind. By 1998, for example, at just 12 years old, our boy wonder had built an early version of Wikipedia, long before the brand would become a household name. He worked at Wired, helped to create RSS feeds as we understand them today, worked on copyright site Lessig, went to MIT, interned at the White House and co-created Reddit. He did much of this while still a teenager. So you get the idea.

The film doesn't shy away from the fact that Swartz had a bit of an ego, and a distinct view of what the Internet could and should be. By his early 20s, he saw the ocean of money-hungry start-ups and code-writing minds for hire. Everyone was chasing the greasy buck, but money was of very little interest to him.

The second half of "The Internet's Own Boy" focuses on Swartz going rogue and starting his tenure as a very public activist, but getting his hands dirty with some shifty hactivism. His missions included making access to public domain documents free to all Americans, and stealing scholarly research and essays from publishers so that this information could be made available online. To do this, Swartz hacked into a publisher's database and started downloaded massive amounts of data, all via the MIT network. He got caught.

In Kanppenberger's "We Are Legion," online activists commit fairly obvious crimes, like attempting to shut down Mastercard or PayPal. Swartz acts were certainly in violation of the law, but his motives are difficult to argue against, making for some compelling cinema. He faced 35 years in prison just before he took his own life.

Is the Internet fair? Can it remain neutral and a great leveler for civilization? Snowden is now hiding out in Russia, and Swartz is dead. Both men broke the law in a big way, but by an indirect Pulitzer Prize or an opening night Hot Docs Festival film, they're getting some recognition for their beliefs. "The Internet's Own Boy" is a decent documentary, but Swartz's story is bigger than what it can convey. He took a big chance and shed light into the darkest corners of the Internet.

Hot Docs runs from April 24 - May 4 at various venues in Toronto.

SCREENINGS

Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Thurs. Apr. 24, 10:00 p.m.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Fri. Apr. 25, 2:00 p.m.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Wed. Apr. 30, 6:30 p.m.