WikiLeaks and Amazon: A free speech issue?

WikiLeaks has been banned from Amazon servers. And for some critics, that's a very problematic development indeed.

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    WikiLeaks has been booted from Amazon servers. WikiLeaks reps say that Amazon has violated the principles of free speech. Others aren't so sure.
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On Wednesday, WikiLeaks – the organization behind one of the largest diplomatic data dumps in history – was ejected from Amazon cloud-based servers, apparently under pressure from US politicians. According to CNN, Amazon was contacted this week by several US senators, including Joe Lieberman, who urged the company to immediately terminate its relationship with WikiLeaks.

"I wish that Amazon had taken this action earlier based on WikiLeaks' previous publication of classified material," Lieberman, an independent senator from Connecticut, said in a statement this week. "The company's decision to cut off WikiLeaks now is the right decision and should set the standard for other companies WikiLeaks is using to distribute its illegally seized material."

Lieberman argues that WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, have violated the law by releasing the contents of thousands of secret US diplomatic memos. He is not alone. On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the document dump an "attack on the international community"; former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has gone so far as to brand Assange an "anti-American operative with blood on his hands."

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But WikiLeaks has plenty of support in the media, from Arianna Huffington – who has praised the organization for shedding new light on the ongoing war in Afghanistan – to Jack Shafer, the media critic for Slate, who says "[i]nformation conduits like Julian Assange" help "shock" us out of our "complacency." The debate over the legality of the leaks – and the possibility of international legal action against Assange – is likely to continue for weeks.

In the meantime, here's a related question: Did Amazon violate the principles of free speech when it ejected WikiLeaks from its servers?

Importantly, no one is suggesting that Amazon has broken the law, or that it shouldn't have full control over what Web sites it chooses to host on its serves. Amazon, after all, is a private company. But as journalist Rebecca MacKinnon points out over on CNN.com, in the "internet age, public discourse increasingly depends on digital spaces created, owned and operated by private companies."

Amazon, she continues has "sent a clear signal to its users: If you engage in controversial speech that some individual members of the U.S. government don't like – even if there is a strong case to be made that your speech is constitutionally protected – Amazon is going to dump you at the first sign of trouble."

Ryan Tate of Valleywag frames the whole thing a little more starkly:

[T]he parties that do business with Amazon don't want the uncertainty that comes from dealing with a weak-willed, unpredictable retailer. And avid readers with diverse tastes and a healthy appetite for controversy are unlikely to enjoy doing business with Amazon if they think the company is censorious... Which is why it's a big strike against the company that the criteria for getting kicked off Amazon is now totally unclear. Wikileaks, for example, is far from a clear cut case; the group is facing heat in Congress and from the State Department, as is Amazon, but no one has been convicted of any crimes in connection with this new data dump, or even formally charged.

Thus far, Amazon has not offered comment on its decision to ban WikiLeaks. And PC World's Keir Thomas says that until Amazon and other private service providers shed a little light on what kind of content they deem objectionable, all organizations should tread carefully.

"Even if the service agreements were crystal clear about what is and isn't acceptable content, there will be many borderline cases that could fall either way. Anybody using cloud services could potentially be at the mercy of unaccountable arbiters... At the moment, it feels like we're at the beginning of the beginning of understanding the nature of cloud computing. Only the brave would dive in at this point in time," Thomas writes.

Over to you. Should Amazon have booted WikiLeaks? Drop us a line in the comments section – and keep it civil, folks.

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