The We the People site set up by the Obama administration gave American citizens a more direct way to petition their government. The ideal propelling it was noble, but it has failed spectacularly in execution. As we’ve noted before, various petitions have gone unanswered for months after hitting the signature threshold.
The threshold itself has been raised a handful of times as well (from 5,000 to 25,000 to 100,000 as the site increased in popularity), ostensibly to weed out petitions that weren’t truly representative of the population. This should have made the administration’s job easier. A higher threshold means fewer petitions requiring an answer, and those that surpass the threshold should (although it’s not always the case) be of higher quality.
Counterintuitively, as the threshold has increased, so has the response time.
Of the 30 unanswered petitions currently posted to We the People, 11 were posted after the threshold was raised to 100,000 signatures and 19 were posted before the threshold was raised to that level.
Unanswered petitions posted after the threshold hike have been waiting 103 days for a response on average.
Unanswered petitions posted before and after the threshold hike have been waiting 298 days, on average, for a response.
What the site was supposed to be (responsive) and what it’s turned out to be (a mostly empty gesture) tracks with the administration’s continual failure to uphold its own stated ideals. The “most transparent administration in history” has advanced and expanded Bush-era policies that added layers of opacity to the government’s inner workings in order to further subvert the notion that a government should be accountable to its constituents. The administration has also prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other administrations combined, further widening the gap between those who govern and those that are governed.
It appears that any petition not deemed a “softball” or that can’t be handled by a canned policy statement is backburnered. One of the first petitions to gather enough signatures (requiring labeling of genetically modified foods) has been waiting since September 2011 for an answer. More recent petitions appear to headed down that same road.
The unanswered petitions include one asking the president to fire the U.S. Attorney who led the prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz and one to pardon the National Security Agency documents leaker Edward Snowden.
The Swartz petition will hit a year of being ignored within a month. The Snowden petition is headed into its seventh month without an answer.
It’s not as though it’s impossible for the administration to answer these in a timely fashion. While the answers given to each of these petitions would probably be unpopular, the point of the site is not for the administration to “look good” but rather to increase its direct communication with the public. The administration also needs to keep in mind that canned policy statements that ignore or only very indirectly address the petitions’ subject matter is not “communication.”
When petitioners are waiting nearly a year to have their issues addressed, the “offer” of a direct line to the government is effectively empty.
Two Days Before MIT and Cambridge Cops Arrested Aaron Swartz, Secret Service Took Over the Investigation
The public story of Aaron Swartz’ now-tragic two year fight with the Federal government usually starts with his July 19, 2011 arrest.
But that’s not when he was first arrested for accessing a closet at MIT in which he had a netbook downloading huge quantities of scholarly journals. He was first arrested on January 6, 2011 by MIT and Cambrige, MA cops.
According to a suppression motion in his case, however two days before Aaron was arrested, the Secret Service took over the investigation.
On the morning of January 4, 2011, at approximately 8:00 am, MIT personnel located the netbook being used for the downloads and decided to leave it in place and institute a packet capture of the network traffic to and from the netbook.4 Timeline at 6. This was accomplished using the laptop of Dave Newman, MIT Senior Network Engineer, which was connected to the netbook and intercepted the communications coming to and from it. Id. Later that day, beginning at 11:00 am, the Secret Service assumed control of the investigation. [my emphasis]
In fact, in one of the most recent developments in discovery in Aaron’s case, the government belatedly turned over an email showing Secret Service agent Michael Pickett offering to take possession of the hardware seized from Aaron “anytime after it has been processed for prints or whenever you [Assistant US Attorney Stephen Heymann] feel it is appropriate.” Another newly disclosed document shows the Pickett accompanied the local cops as they moved the hardware they had seized from Aaron around.
According to the Secret Service, they get involved in investigations with:
- Significant economic or community impact
- Participation of organized criminal groups involving multiple districts or transnational organizations
- Use of schemes involving new technology
Downloading scholarly articles is none of those things.
A lot of people are justifiably furious with US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and AUSA Heymann’s conduct on this case.
But the involvement of the Secret Service just as it evolved from a local breaking and entry case into the excessive charges ultimately charged makes it clear that this was a nationally directed effort to take down Swartz.
MIT’s President Rafael Reif has expressed sadness about Aaron’s death and promised an investigation into the university’s treatment of Aaron. I want to know whether MIT–which is dependent on federal grants for much of its funding–brought in the Secret Service.
The US justice system is “rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” says the family of American activist Aaron Swartz, who was an outspoken critic of the US government and was recently found dead in his apartment.
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” said Swartz’s family in a statement.
Since Friday, when the activist and computer prodigy was found dead in his New York apartment, internet activists have also blamed the US Attorney’s office.
Before his death, Swartz openly criticized the US and the Israeli regime for launching joint cyber attacks against Iran.
The blogger was also vocal in criticizing Obama’s “kill list,” a list of individuals who are suspected of terrorism by the US and are listed for targeted killing after final approval by the US president himself.
Swartz was also critical of the monopoly of information and believed that information should be available to everyone for the benefit of the society.
The US Attorney’s office in Massachusetts accused the 26-year-old of downloading millions of academic journal articles from the online service JSTOR by using Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s computer network in 2010, to make such articles available to the public.
Even though, Swartz handed over his hard drives and the charges against him were dropped by the JSTOR, US Attorneys Carmen Ortiz and Steve Heymann, with the support of MIT, continued to pursue the activist’s prosecution.
According to the statement by the activist’s family, officials were demanding heavy penalties of more than 30 years in prison and up to USD 1.0 million in fines for Swartz, “to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”
The activist’s death comes weeks before he was due in court.
A petition presented to the White House “for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz” has been set up to remove US Attorney Ortiz and it has already gained almost 10,000 signatures.
The House of Representatives has approved Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act with a vote count of 248-168. The bill is now headed for the Senate. President Barack Obama will be able to sign or cancel it pending Senate approval.
Initially slated to vote on the bill Friday, the House of Representatives decided to pass Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) Thursday after approving a number of amendments.
Apart from cyber and national security purposes, the bill would now allow the government to use private information obtained through CISPA for the investigation and prosecution of “cybersecurity crime,” protection of individuals and the protection of children. The new clauses define “cybersecurity crime” as any crime involving network disruption or hacking.
“Basically this means CISPA can no longer be called a cyber security bill at all. The government would be able to search information it collects under CISPA for the purposes of investigating American citizens with complete immunity from all privacy protections as long as they can claim someone committed a ‘cybersecurity crime.’ Basically it says the Fourth Amendment does not apply online, at all,” Techdirt’s Leigh Beadon said.
Declan McCullagh, correspondent from CNET News, says CISPA will cause more trouble than is immediately apparent.
“The most controversial section of CISPA is the language – that notwithstanding any other portion the of law, companies can share what they want as long as it’s for what they call a ‘cyber security purpose,’” he told RT.
CISPA was introduced in the House last November. Critics chided the bill, saying its broad wording could allow the government to spy on individual Internet users and block websites that publish vaguely defined ‘sensitive’ data.
“[CISPA] doesn’t really have any protections against cyber threats, all it does is make people share their information. But that’s not going to solve the problem. What’s going to solve the problem is actual security measures, protecting the service in the first place, not spying on people after the fact,” Internet activist Aaron Swartz told RT.
The White House issued a statement Wednesday saying President Barack Obama would be advised to veto the bill if he receives it. The Obama administration denounces the proposed law for potentially giving the government cyber-sleuthing powers that would allow both federal authorities and private businesses to sneak into inboxes and online activities in the name of combating Internet terrorism tactics.
Earlier, the House of Representatives and Senate also considered adopting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA). These bills sought to entitle the US government to curb access to “rogue websites” that illegally hosted intellectual property. The bills could effectively force search engines to remove these websites from search results, an action many private companies considered intrusive.
PIPA and SOPA were opposed by many Internet giants including Google, Mozilla, Facebook, Yahoo!, Wikipedia and Reddit. Google organized a petition against the legislation, while Wikipedia held a 24-hour blackout to protest the bill in January. As a result, SOPA was recalled while PIPA was postponed indefinitely.
However, CISPA was actually backed by Facebook, despite its opposition to SOPA and PIPA. In a blog post on April 13, Joel Kaplan, Vice President of US Public Policy at Facebook, argued that if enacted into law, the bill would “give companies like ours the tools we need to protect our systems and the security of our users’ information, while also providing those users confidence that adequate privacy safeguards are in place.”
A number of big companies, including AT&T, Microsoft, Boeing, Verizon and Oracle have also supported CISPA.