Holder's Disappointing Tech Legacy

Tim Wu | The New Yorker | September 26, 2014

As he leaves office, Attorney General Eric Holder is being celebrated for many accomplishments, particularly in areas like civil rights and racial justice, which he saw as his legacy...But, when it came to another frontier of civil rights—the digital world, in which most of us now spend much of our time—Holder fell far short. While he was only rarely personally involved (indeed, his lack of involvement was one of the problems), Holder was in charge during what will be remembered as one of the most depressing periods in recent memory in terms of the government’s disregard for digital rights. His legacy is marred by invasions of electronic privacy and prosecutions of nonviolent hackers. It is a sour disappointment, especially from an Administration that originally promised so much more.

A visceral sense of dissatisfaction arose from the hacker prosecutions of the Holder era—too many indictments of young, nonviolent, and mainly harmless men. Some might defend, perhaps, the sentencing of Chelsea Manning to thirty-five years in prison for giving classified information to Wikileaks and the press (notably, a far harsher sentence than anyone involved in prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib). But a signature example of overreach was the prosecution, in 2011, of Aaron Swartz, a young digital activist who undertook politically motivated efforts to “free” academic-journal articles, pursuant to an open-access philosophy. Swartz’s actions, if foolish, did no actual harm...