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The Life And Death Of 'The Internet's Own Boy'

Originally published on Mon July 7, 2014 8:48 am

Aaron Swartz was a programmer, a hacker, a freedom of information activist — and a casualty of suicide.

Before he turned 20, Swartz had made a fortune for his work on the social news website Reddit. He also was instrumental in founding the nonprofit Creative Commons, and later worked on the successful campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act that was taken up by Congress in 2012.

Just a year later, when he was 26 years old, Swartz hanged himself in his apartment. At the time, he was fighting federal prosecution for illegally downloading millions of pages of articles from the academic database JSTOR. He faced charges of wire and computer fraud and possibly years in federal prison.

That case and Swartz's life are the subjects of a new documentary, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger tells NPR's Kelly McEvers that the details of the federal case against Swartz are still hazy.

"We are left to speculate a little bit," he says, because Swartz was arrested before he could do anything with the JSTOR articles.

As Knappenberger worked on the film, he says, one possibility seemed more and more likely: "It's speculated that what he might have been doing is downloading these articles to analyze them for corporate funding — corruption, essentially — that led to biased results in research, particularly in the area of climate change."

But if Swartz was just a climate research whistleblower, why did prosecutors with the Department of Justice pursue his case so aggressively — even after JSTOR dropped the charges?

"The prosecutor did tell Aaron's dad that they wanted to make an example out of him, that they needed a case for deterrence," says Knappenberger. "And it really makes you wonder, well, what were they deterring? Are there lots of people going around downloading articles from JSTOR? What kind of example were they trying to make? And I think the story becomes very dark when you start to ask those questions."

That's where the documentary's narrative takes a turn. Two years into his legal battle with the federal government, Swartz faced a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines.

Through interviews with loved ones, the documentary briefly muses on the possibility that Swartz suffered from depression, which might have led him to take his own life. But Knappenberger says the mental health explanation misses the bigger picture.

"He did do this after a two-year legal nightmare that left him exhausted financially and emotionally, and he did commit suicide within a day or so of the two-year anniversary of his initial arrest," he says. "That's not exactly a coincidence. It's hard to discount this hell that he was going through."

At the same time, Knappenberger says, he didn't want to portray Swartz's suicide simply as a reaction to his legal troubles.

"I would argue it's definitely not that simple in the film. He's a complex person; he certainly carried the world on his shoulders," Knappenberger says.

The Internet's Own Boy thus straddles the difficult line between portraying Swartz as an Internet martyr on one hand, and as a complicated and flawed human being on the other.

"At one point somebody [in the film] says, 'He wasn't always comfortable with the world, and the world wasn't always comfortable with him,' " says Knappenberger. "And I think that resonates through the film, too. But to let the government off too easy on this, I think, is not quite right."

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Aaron Swartz is one of those names we come to know after the person is gone. Swartz was a programmer, a hacker and a kind of freedom of information activist. Before he turned 20, he'd made a fortune for his work on the website Reddit. He later worked on the successful campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, that was making it's way through Congress in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AARON SWARTZ: So yeah, maybe, sometimes, you feel like you're not being listened to, but I'm here to tell you that you are. You are being listened to. You are making a difference. You can stop this bill if you don't stop fighting.

MCEVERS: That was Swartz speaking at a protest in New York in January, 2012. Just a year later, when he was 26-years-old, Swartz hanged himself in his apartment. At the time, he'd been fighting an aggressive federal prosecution - charges of wire and computer fraud and possibly years in federal prison all for illegally downloading millions of pages of academic articles. That case and Swartz's life are the subjects of a new documentary called "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz." Brian Knappenberger directed the film. It tells the story of a young man who was hounded by government investigators, but it does less to explain the other reasons why he might have taken his own life. Brian, welcome to the program.

BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: So let's talk about this case a little bit. It started late 2010, early 2011, when he gets a laptop. He's working at Harvard, and he uses his laptop. He actually takes it next door to MIT, puts it in a closet, hard wires it to MIT's system in order to download millions of documents from this paid database called JSTOR. This is one of these companies that archives academic journals. If you're a student, you can access them for free, but anybody else has to pay for them. So he starts downloading millions of these articles.

KNAPPENBERGER: Right. Actually, the closet and the connection directly to this server was the last of a cat and mouse game that he was playing with the MIT tech folks trying to kick him off their network. So what he does - he goes on the MIT network, which is sort of famously fast and famously open. And from there, he has direct access to the JSTOR database. And he starts downloading these articles, then evades several attempts to kind of kick him off the network. And then, he ends up in this closet where he's found out by authorities - first MIT, then, I think, Cambridge police, and then this escalates to the Secret Service. They don't stop the downloads. They let it keep going, and they insert surveillance cameras in this small closet in the basement of an MIT building.

MCEVERS: And one of the most amazing things about the film is that we see this footage.

KNAPPENBERGER: Yeah, you see him enter this closet and start to change the hard drives. And one of these times, after they catch him on camera, they chase him down the street of Cambridge, arrest him and put him in solitary confinement.

MCEVERS: And one of the key issues for federal prosecutors, ultimately, was the question of why he was doing this.

KNAPPENBERGER: Yes.

MCEVERS: Why was he downloading this material? - because, I think, that's what you're going to build the case on. Was there criminal intent? We'll never - I mean, he never really answered that question, but what do you think the answer is?

KNAPPENBERGER: Exactly right. We don't know. He was arrested before he did anything with the articles so we are left to speculate a little bit. So there's really only three choices. One is that he would've tried to sell them. That seems silly to almost anybody looking at this case - that he would've tried to profit somehow off of this. The second thing is that he may have just been wanting to dump them online, you know. He may have just wanted to kind of liberate this, and this is consistent with lots of things that he said throughout his life - the kind of heart of this kind of open access movement, which is sort of deeply offended that this tax-payer-funded research would be behind a pay wall. But the third version started becomingly increasingly more likely to me as I was making the documentary. And it's speculated that what he might have been doing is downloading these articles to analyze them for corporate funding, corruption essentially, that lead to biased results in research, particularly in the area of climate change.

MCEVERS: So almost to be an investigative journalist...

KNAPPENBERGER: That's exactly right.

MCEVERS: ...With these documents and try to sort of come up with a story from the documents. So knowing that was probably his motive, why did prosecutors go after him so hard, do you think?

KNAPPENBERGER: Well, I think there's a couple of...

MCEVERS: And also - sorry - knowing that JSTOR, ultimately, dropped the case.

KNAPPENBERGER: Yeah, the quote-unquote "victim" in the crime, JSTOR, just drops everything, and the feds march on without skipping a beat.

MCEVERS: Right.

KNAPPENBERGER: You know, you have to look at a couple of things. Why did they go after him so hard? I think that one might've just have been a mindset of like, well, they're must be something going on here that he's profiting from. The prosecutor did tell Aaron's dad that they wanted to make an example out of him - that they needed a case for deterrence. And it really makes you wonder, well, what were they deterring? Are there lots of people going around downloading articles from JSTOR? I mean...

MCEVERS: Right.

KNAPPENBERGER: ...What kind of example were they trying to make? And I think the story becomes very dark when you start to ask those questions.

MCEVERS: And that's when we really see the major turn in the story. I mean, it's late 2012. New indictment come down from the feds. Aaron refuses to take a final plea deal. A final trial date is set. And then, in January, 2013, he kills himself. He takes his own life. It happens kind of fast in the film. A few people kind of mews over whether or not he was depressed. But then it just kind of - the film kind of moves on to something else. And as a viewer, I found myself wondering, wait, I want to know if there's more to this. And, you know, I went and read some articles and saw that he had written about suicide in the past. He had written about depression in the past. He had suffered from a really painful illness. I mean, why not include some of that in the film?

KNAPPENBERGER: Well, we do actually, and Taren talks about him maybe having something like clinical depression in his early 20s.

MCEVERS: Taren was his girlfriend at the time he died, yeah.

KNAPPENBERGER: And they were living together, as well. So she saw what he was going through. You know, she says that she didn't believe he had anything like that when she lived him. His brother believed that that wasn't the case. I think a lot was made of that early on, and I didn't necessarily buy into it as much as some other takes on it were. He did do this after a two-year legal nightmare that left him exhausted financially and emotionally. And he did commit suicide within a day or so of the two-year anniversary of his initial arrest. That's not exactly a coincidence. It's hard to discount this hell that he was going through.

MCEVERS: So, in some ways, it's almost like the film was implying that the case is what killed him - what drove him to kill himself. I mean, is that what you want people to come away with?

KNAPPENBERGER: I don't think it's that simple in the film. I would argue it's definitely not that simple in the film. He's a complex person. He certainly carried the world on his shoulders. At one point, somebody says, he was always comfortable with the world and the world wasn't always comfortable with him. And I think that resonates through that film, too - a complex person, but to let the government off too easy on this I think is not quite right.

MCEVERS: That's Brian Knappenberger. He's the director of the new documentary "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story Of Aaron Swartz." It's in theaters and streaming online right now. Brian, thanks so much.

KNAPPENBERGER: All right - thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.