White House declines to act on petitions to fire Aaron Swartz prosecutors

Petitions are not the right mechanism for dealing with government personnel issues, the White House says

The White House has declined to act on two petitions, collectively signed by 90,000 people, that called for the president to fire the federal prosecutors who charged the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz with computer hacking.

The White House, in recent responses to the two petitions at its own We the People website, said it will not address personnel issues related to petitions. "We do not believe this is the appropriate forum in which to do so," a White House official wrote.

A petition asking President Barack Obama to fire Carmen Ortiz, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, for prosecutorial "overreach" collected more than 61,000 signatures between January 2013 and early this month.

A second petition, asking the White House to fire Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann, the lead prosecutor in the Swartz case, generated nearly 29,000 signatures.

The 26-year-old Swartz, who could have faced a maximum 35-year prison sentence for hacking into a Massachusetts Institute of Technology network and downloading research articles, committed suicide in January 2013. Swartz had reportedly planned to make the articles and documents available for free.

The White House had pledged to respond to petitions generating more than 25,000 signatures before raising the threshold to 100,000 signatures in January 2013, days after both of the Swartz petitions launched.

The White House, in a message posted in recent days on the two petitions, called Swartz's death a "tragic, unthinkable loss."

The Obama administration will push for a "spirit of openness" on the Internet, the message added. "Members of the administration continue to engage with advocates to ensure the Internet remains a free and open platform as technology continues to disrupt industries and connect our communities in ways we can't yet imagine," the message said. "We will continue this engagement as we tackle new questions on key issues such as citizen participation in democracy, open access to information, privacy, intellectual property, free speech, and security."

Obama administration officials have defended the prosecution of Swartz, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder saying in March 2013 that "there was never an intention for him to go to jail for longer than a three-, four-, potentially five-month range."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags copyrightlegalBarack Obamaintellectual propertyCriminalU.S. White HouseGovernment use of ITMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyEric HolderAaron SwartzCarmen OrtizSteve Heymann

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Grant Gross

IDG News Service
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