Aaron Swartz was both an icon of the Internet age and a victim of it.
On Jan. 12, 2013, Swartz, a developer of Reddit who had become an Internet folk hero with his commitment to make online content free to the public, hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 26.
Swartz had been embroiled in a two-year legal battle with the federal government, which had brought multiple felony charges against him for allegedly hacking into computer systems.
Just a year after his death, writer Brian Knappenberger (“We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists”) premiered his documentary, “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for a grand jury prize. The film opened Friday in theaters and is available on video-on-demand and iTunes.
“Aaron was on the cutting edge, and that is not a comfortable place to be,” the Los Angeles-based filmmaker said by phone.
A year before Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the National Security Agency, said Knappenberger, Swartz was discussing the “government’s overreach in terms of surveillance and lamenting the fact that there hadn’t been a galvanizing moment that changed everybody’s opinion. He didn’t live to see that moment.”
Knappenberger never met Swartz but had closely followed his story.
“I was already kind of fired (up) about some of the causes he was fighting for,” Knappenberger said.
Through home movies, news footage, archival interviews with Swartz and interviews with his family, friends and co-workers, Knappenberger delivers a portrait of a complex and fragile young man who had battled depression for several years before he took his life.
Swartz took his pursuit of a free and open Internet to a new level in late 2010 when he allegedly accessed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s network to download the majority of the archive of JSTOR, a nonprofit, subscription-only database of scientific journals and academic work, so he could distribute the articles on file-sharing websites.