The United States Department of Justice is under increasing scrutiny over its unwavering determination to prosecute internet journalists and activists, especially those who challenge what appears to be the abuse of power by corporations and the government.

Those accused of the alleged crimes - described by many as trivial - face years in prison and relentless pursuit by the authorities.

The latest example involves the sentencing of 26-year-old online activist Andrew Auernheimer to three-and-a-half years in prison for obtaining the personal data of thousands of AT&T's customers.

"As long as criminality is done on behalf of the interest of the US government or to advance the interest of large corporations, then there is no interest whatsoever in prosecuting it, investigating it or punishing it .... But the minute there is somebody whose political orientation is opposed to the government, when they commit even the most trivial transgressions of law, at worst, and sometimes not even breaking the law, the full weight of the criminal justice system, the DOJ, comes down upon them because the law is not being applied equally at all to punish wrongdoers regardless of their power, position and prestige - which is what the rule of law is supposed to do. The law is being exploited as a means to entrench public and private sector power. And that's what makes this all so warped and so menacing."

- Glenn Greenwald, columnist for the Guardian newspaper

But his supporters argue that he was exposing a flaw in the firm's security system that had already endangered the personal information of customers, and that he did no actual "hacking" himself.

Then there is the pending prosecution of journalist Barrett Brown who has been in jail for six months and potentially faces decades in prison. 

Brown's supporters say it was his work investigating the largely secret relationships and tactics of security contractors, corporations and the government that led to President Barack Obama's DOJ targeting him for prosecution. 

Campaigners say the DOJ and US Attorney General Eric Holder have not learned the lessons of the suicide of another internet activist, Aaron Swartz, in January this year.

Earlier this month, Holder defended the Justice Department's handling of the Swartz case, facing members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Swartz's family has said his death was "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach".

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was implemented in 1984. Its aim is to protect federally sensitive information that could potentially be used to cause injury to the United States.

The CFAA makes it a federal crime to "access a computer without authorization or exceed authorized access".

And this phrase is where much of the debate is centered - critics say no one really knows what these words mean and its vagueness gives prosecutors the power excessively charge violators.

Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren has introduced a CFAA reform bill. She called it "Aaron's Law" - after the online activist Swartz.

Her bill would limit the scope of the current law to exclude acts that are just violations of online terms of service. In essence, things that are nothing more than a breach of contract.

Among other cases of people who have been targeted by the US government under the CFAA is Reuters journalist Matthew Keys, who was earlier this month indicted on felony charges.

"[Hacktivism] in the cases we have seen most currently, is the ability to either steal or leak information that would otherwise be kept secret and disseminate it through the internet. And I find that the government is extremely concerned about this development and the ability of the internet to disseminate information they don't want to disseminate, in the same way that any governments of the past were concerned with other secret operations. "

- Christian Stork,

He is accused of giving the hacker group Anonymous the username and password to a major media organisation's computer server. It is alleged the group then used the information to hack into the Los Angeles Times website and change a headline on the homepage.

Keys faces up to 25 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

Earlier this week, Auernheimer was sentenced to nearly three-and-a-half years in prison and ordered to pay $73,000 after he was found guilty of conspiracy to access a computer without authorisation, and identity fraud.

Back in 2010, Auernheimer found a security breach in the publically-accessible website of AT&T - a telephone and internet company. It allowed him to get thousands of users' email addresses. He then passed along the information to a journalist, so that they could reveal that AT&T was letting users' private information be out in the open.

Auernheimer is appealing his conviction; he says the information he got was on a public website and he did not hack past any security measures.

So, why is the Department of Justice so relentless in its pursuit of internet activists, shrugging off notions of the public interest in favour of recommending sentences that far outweigh any crime committed?

And what does this tell us about the priorities of Obama's Department of Justice? 

To discuss this, Inside Story Americas with presenter Shihab Rattansi, is joined by Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer and columnist for the Guardian newspaper; Christian Stork, who has written extensively on the Barrett Brown case for the investigative journalism site,; and Kevin Gallagher, founder of the Barrett Brown Legal Defense Fund.

Source: Al Jazeera