The White House has declined to rule on a petition that called for the firing of two Justice Department officials over the handling of a controversial court case involving Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist who committed suicide in 2013 after being accused of hacking into a university network.
The decision comes nearly two years after Swartz’s death, which sparked separate We the People petitions demanding the dismissal of U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz, who oversaw the prosecution, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann, another attorney on the case.
The White House said personnel matters can’t be handled in such a forum. “We will not address agency personnel matters in a petition response, because we do not believe this is the appropriate forum in which to do so,” the agency said in a statement.
Some Swartz supporters believe that the government was overly aggressive in pursuing the charges against him. His alleged crime, which involved systematically downloading massive amounts of data from scholastic database JSTOR, was compared by some to checking out too many library books.
The White House was quick to add that it works with technology advocates “to ensure the Internet remains a free and open platform.” On Wednesday, President Obama’s top telecom regulator signaled that he would seek to apply aggressive rules on Internet providers to be sure they can’t speed up or slow down some Web sites over others.
The Obama administration has a spotty record replying to We the People petitions. Currently, 18 petitions have been waiting for a response for about a year, according to whpetitions.info, a site that tracks the White House’s response rate.
The White House will respond to petitions that receive enough signatures and complied with the rules, according to the We the People site’s FAQ, although it may decline if a petition addresses "certain procurement, law enforcement, adjudicatory, or similar matters properly within the jurisdiction of federal departments or agencies, federal courts, or state and local government."
Several other languishing successful petitions are related to technology policy — including one asking that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden be pardoned. That petition has been waiting for a response since July 2013. Another request, waiting since December 2013, urges the White House to update a key privacy law governing e-mail content.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the White House declined to respond to a petition calling for the ouster of two Justice Department officials. It also corrects the titles for Carmen Ortiz and Steve Heymann. Ortiz is the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, not the District Attorney. Heymann is the Assistant U.S. Attorney, not the U.S. Attorney.