The White House must respond to a petition to fire the attorneys who prosecuted Aaron Swartz, a Web activist who committed suicide while awaiting trial on federal computer fraud charges.
A petition calling for the ouster of the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, has drawn more than 50,000 signatures, while a second petition demanding the firing of Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann has garnered more than 25,000. When the online documents were created, the White House was obligated to address any petitions with more than 25,000 signatures.
The petition regarding Heymann calls for the government to fire him "before his reckless prosecutions claim any more lives." The online call for Ortiz's ouster condemns her for failing to "understand proportionality" and for routinely using "the threat of unjust and overreaching charges to extort plea bargains from defendants regardless of their guilt."
It's understandable that many people are angry that Ortiz and her staff took a hard line with Swartz, the open-access advocate who hanged himself last month. At the time, Swartz was facing trial on computer fraud charges stemming from his use of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's network to download millions of scholarly articles from the academic publisher JSTOR.
JSTOR didn't allow mass downloads and complained to MIT, which implemented technical barriers to prevent Swartz from accessing its network. Swartz got around those hurdles by changing his MAC address and IP address. Many people think he wanted to make the papers more accessible to the public; no one thinks he acted out of a profit motive. JSTOR itself -- one of the "victims" in the case -- settled the matter with Swartz and wasn't interested in prosecuting the case.
Swartz was indicted for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act on the theory that he exceeded his authorized access to the network. The charges carried up to 35 years in prison. Swartz's lawyers attempted to resolve the case, but the prosecution wasn't willing to agree to any plea bargain that didn't include prison time. Swartz committed suicide in January, after learning that the federal authorities wouldn't budge.
There's no question that the authorities' decisions in this case warrant scrutiny. But the problem with the Swartz prosecution goes beyond the calls of individual attorneys. The underlying problem is the computer fraud statute itself. The 1984 law prohibits people from exceeding their "authorized access" to a computer network, but that concept is so broad that nearly everyone who violates a company's terms of service could be a criminal.
Already some lawmakers have proposed legislation to tighten the definition of computer fraud. In the long run, such legislation will have a greater impact on future cases than merely targeting the individuals who prosecuted Swartz.