The Internet’s Own Boy

Quinn Norton
The Message
Published in
7 min readJun 27, 2014


This documentary about the life and death of Aaron Swartz is in theaters around the country today, as well as available to stream on the net. I accidentally named this movie. Less than a week after Aaron died, Brian Knappenberger asked me, on camera, why the reaction to Aaron’s death had been so extreme. Puffy-eyed and broken I told him, “He was the internet’s own boy… and the old world killed him.” This remains, for me, the best encapsulation of this terrible story. I knew I had more to say even then, though it wasn’t time yet. We were all in shock, and I wanted those of us closest to him to have our time to grieve before he became the world’s property. We had to grieve fast. The world wanted him, and wasn’t waiting.

I have written my account of the investigation already, and I have written about my deep love of Aaron. I’ve spoken of him in memorial. There is always more to the story, but what remains belongs to his intimates, those who loved and were loved by him. It is not only something for us to keep, it is something there is not enough art to convey.

The Internet’s Own Boy is about the Aaron that belongs to all of you. It’s a good movie, and I’m glad Brian made it. You should see this movie, I want all of you to see it. Take the Aaron Swartz that is yours now.

I am in it, and I am the most controversial figure in it. I have been one of the most controversial figures in all of this story. This movie makes the story of Aaron’s life and suicide yours, and I want to say what I have to say, and be done with it.

You will see me cry in this movie, you will see me emotional and real. I chose to give this to Brian to give to you. But I don’t need to live in the state you see in the movie. (Please don’t mail me about it.) And I don’t want to live in the controversy about my relationship with Aaron or the case that lead him to his suicide.

I have regrets, but they’re not the ones the internet wants me to have. I don’t really regret the proffer you’ll hear about so much. I was put in an impossible situation, isolated and uninformed, and I didn’t do too badly, all things considered. All the prosecution got from me was a public and widely distributed blog post, which the DOJ later mislead Congress with. They claimed it motivated the case, but what motivated it was Assistant US Attorney Steve Heymann’s ego months before they ever heard of the post. After Aaron turned down his plea agreement, Heymann made it clear he was going to do anything to ruin Aaron and make him pay. The rest was posturing to justify what Heymann had made it clear he intended to do anyway.

Sometimes I regret that first moment when Aaron came to me, and held me, and we cried, and he said he’d take the agreement if I wanted him to. He didn’t want me to tell him to take it, but he loved me and my daughter and this whole thing was clearly destroying us. At that moment, I was the one being hauled in and targeted. We didn’t even know at that time whether they considered me a possible witness, or a possible accomplice. If I’d said yes it would have been over, he would have taken the felony, and maybe life would have gone on. But maybe he was right that he couldn’t live like that, couldn’t live with a black mark that might have prevented him from having a career in politics. He was terrified about jail, but the felony was worse. I told him whatever happened he would be ok, that he was stronger than he knew. Both of us always had more faith in each other than we had in ourselves.

I regret, to some extent, cutting him off when it was all over. He split with me and started a relationship with a wonderful new woman, and I told him I didn’t want to speak to him for a while. He was very angry with me about it. It had nothing to do with Taren. She was many of the things I am not, she believed in changing the system, she believed (and still believes) in the power of people to hold power accountable. I knew that was good for him, I knew she was good for him. I don’t believe the system can be saved from within, but I’m glad many of my friends do — I might be wrong. In fact, I’d love to be wrong. But I couldn’t look in the face of my beloved and tell him I believed his life’s work in political reform would be effective. I was too damaged, I’d seen too much terrible violence from the American system to believe in it anymore.

I didn’t think keeping in touch right then would have been good for either of us. But I look back now, and wonder if he needed someone with that damage to talk to about the damage he was enduring as well. I wanted him to start a new life, and I didn’t want to be reminded of what I’d lost. I also wanted to work on the things I believed had the best chance of helping the world, and I didn’t want to fight about that anymore. He went back and forth being angry with me, about the case, about my politics, about my work, but I think now mostly about me not being there to talk to anymore. We were both angry, and hurt, and I took my chance to walk away from it. I thought it was the best thing I could do for both of us, and I’ll never know if I was right.

What I regret most now is not talking to those closest to him about my fears. I always knew that he found the situation intolerable. I knew what that could mean in his head. After one fight during the case, I called his lawyer and told him Aaron was suicidal. Aaron was so coldly furious with me that it still makes my throat close up to think about it. When the case date started rolling up, I told myself other people who were closer to him now would know what was on his mind. I told a few of our mutual friends I was worried about him attempting suicide, but I was too scared of his anger to tell the people that were with him every day.

People debate my proffer and my grand jury testimony, and the merits of the case and the state of the law. The talk annoys me, but not for the reasons people usually think. I regret not talking to Ben and Taren and Larry about my fears.

I don’t regret that I didn’t do better in an impossible situation.

That, I am angry about.

Only around 3% of charged cases ever see the inside of a courtroom. This is what our right to a fair and speedy trial has become. Hundreds of thousands of people exist in cruel and unusual conditions, including the mind-breaking torture of solitary confinement. We are spied on with impunity by all levels of our government and managed like cattle for elections. Political protest is unsupported and meaningless. We are gerrymandered and sorted and isolated and indebted, and we look at the hapless unluckies that go to prison and imagine they somehow deserve their Hell on Earth. And there is no resistance. We just let our rights go, and hope the bad things happen to other people.

I have watched this system chew through vets whose lives were destroyed for nothing at all. I have watched the environment raped with pollution and extraction, other peoples oppressed with our government’s blessing (and funding) and their countries plundered. I have spent my life watching police here murder and maim without accountability. Our intelligence agencies drain our economy on the pretense of protecting us from a nearly non-existent threat. At its worst, terrorism doesn’t get anywhere as close to hurting us as our working conditions, our prisons, our debts, our medical system, our own police, or our vast proclivity for killing ourselves.

I don’t really blame the government, per se. All governments tend toward rapacious thievery and murder, if their people let them. I don’t even blame the DOJ for driving Aaron to suicide. I blame you. They are monsters, and they do monstrous things, but you let them.

The American people have spent my whole life telling themselves stories that let them off the hook when it comes to being responsible wardens of our country and our world. And you’re still doing it. You’re even using my dead, beloved Aaron to do it, whom you let die. People love to say Aaron was a genius, and prodigy, and there’s no one like him. But he wasn’t. He just cared and believed in things and he let his care and his belief move his life. You could do that any day, any minute. You could be like any of the characters in this movie, all of whom are real people, and let your convictions be more important than your job or your mortgage or your debt or any of the million little things Americans let keep them small and separated and afraid. You could organize your communities. You could help Taren’s efforts to pressure companies into being better actors on the global stage. You could help by contributing to Larry’s superpac attempt to reform our broken democracy. You could listen to Ben’s stories of political reform, and get involved in the issues he talks about. You could even come over to my side of our grand debate and try to work out how to build a society without government as we know it.

But you can’t just sit there and call Aaron a hero and a genius and whatever. He is dead. He is dust. He is now just one more of the millions of victims of this American dream that has only been a nightmare for so many.

Your ass will be in a seat watching a movie. When it is done, get up, and do something.



Quinn Norton
The Message

A journalist, essayist, and sometimes photographer of Technology, Science, Hackers, Internets, and Civil Unrest.