Soon after the unfortunate suicide of Aaron Swartz, a lot of anger was directed at Carmen Ortiz, the US Attorney who was the key figure behind the ridiculous prosecution of Swartz for daring to download too many documents (that he had legal access to, as did anyone connecting to MIT’s network). Ortiz showed no concern at all that either she or her office had done anything improper in threatening Swartz with over 30 years in jail for downloading (legally) some academic papers. As a result some people set up one of those “We the People” White House petitions, asking the Obama administration to remove Ortiz from her job.

This petition had no chance. Petitions are supposed to be used to get the White House to discuss or commit to policy positions. Specific personnel decisions seem way outside the scope. Besides, as bad a job as we may think Ortiz did in handling the Swartz situation, frankly, it’s not the kind of thing the White House will ever come out and say directly. That’s just not how it works.

Similarly, while at times the “We the People” petitions have been useful in forcing the White House’s hand on things, for the most part, the administration seems to ignore most of them, even if they got the required 100,000 signatures demanding a response.

So I’m at a total loss as to why the White House suddenly decided — two years later — to respond to the petition to remove Ortiz from her job, and to basically say… absolutely nothing in response:

Aaron Swartz’s death was a tragic, unthinkable loss for his family and friends. Our sympathy continues to go out to those who were closest to him, and to the many others whose lives he touched.

We also reaffirm our belief that a spirit of openness is what makes the Internet such a powerful engine for economic growth, technological innovation, and new ideas. That’s why 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. 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.

As to the specific personnel-related requests raised in your petitions, our response must be limited. Consistent with the terms we laid out when we began We the People, 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.

If that’s the answer, why bother responding at all? Even the opening statement expressing concern for Swartz’s family and friends rings hollow. While I know, for a fact, that some in the White House absolutely do understand what Swartz meant to the internet, this response is incredibly weak. Of course, even though they couldn’t do anything or say anything about Ortiz, an announcement like this (two years later) could have been tied to some sort of program on internet openness, or increasing access to public domain works, or any of a number of projects and campaigns that Swartz was close to. There was no real reason to pick up this thread now, but having decided to answer the petition now, the White House certainly could have done something a lot more productive with it.


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