Intermediary Censorship of Wikileaks On the Rise

The list of private companies that have in some way refused access or support to Wikileaks is growing: as of December 6, the tally included Amazon, EveryDNS, PayPal, and Tableau Software; French hosting company OVH also appears to have shut down Wikileaks' server over the weekend. These companies share the distinction of preventing access to Wikileaks with the governments of China and Thailand, which are reportedly blocking access to the site in the wake of its release of more than a quarter of a million United States diplomatic cables.

The story begins with Amazon, which blocked Wikileaks from using its services on November 30 after staff from Senator Joe Lieberman's office contacted the company. A public request by Sen. Lieberman convinced Tableau Software, which Wikileaks had been using to visualize information from the cables, to drop Wikileaks' data on December 2.

While Tableau publicly stated that its decision had been prompted by Sen. Lieberman's request, Amazon claimed it made the decision to drop the site because Wikileaks had been violating its terms of service and potentially endangering human rights defenders.

EveryDNS, which terminated DNS services for on Decemeber 2, and PayPal, which announced on December 3 that it would no longer permit Wikileaks to receive donations through its website, also explained their actions by referring to their terms of service. EveryDNS stated that cyber attacks directed at Wikileaks threatened the "use and enjoyment of the Service or another entity's use and enjoyment of similar services" by other clients, while PayPal's announcement stated that Wikileaks had committed "a violation of the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy, which states that our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity."

On December 5, Australia's ABC News reported that French hosting company OVH, to which Wikileaks moved last week after Amazon began refusing it service, took Wikileaks' server offline over the weekend in response to pressure from the French government. (As of late Monday afternoon, the AP was reporting that a French judge had "declined to force web provider OVH to shut down the WikiLeaks site," though the site does not yet appear to have been moved back to OVH's servers.)

This wave of service refusals has raised questions about the responsibility of private companies to protect free speech, as well as concerns that governments normally supportive of free speech are cracking down on Wikileaks. In a statement on the "blocking, cyber-attacks and political pressure being directed" at Wikileaks, Reporters Without Borders said:

This is the first time we have seen an attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency. We are shocked to find countries such as France and the United States suddenly bringing their policies on freedom of expression into line with those of China. We point out that in France and the United States, it is up to the courts, not politicians, to decide whether or not a website should be closed.

In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review about Amazon's decision to block Wikileaks from using its services, Ethan Zuckerman stated:

What’s really hard about this is that we perceive the web to be a public space, a place where you should be able to go and set up your soapbox and say whatever you want to say to the world. The truth is, the web is almost entirely privately held. So what happens here is that we have a normative understanding that we should treat this like public space — that you should have rights to speak, that no one should constrain your rights — but then you discover that, basically, you’re holding a political rally in a shopping mall. This is commercial speech, controlled by commercial rules.

In an op-ed on CNN, Rebecca MacKinnon pointed out that this is not the first time Sen. Lieberman has put pressure on a private company to remove online content. In 2008, he asked Google to take down videos on YouTube that he alleged were "produced by Islamist terrorist organizations." MacKinnon wrote:

Google's lawyers determined that the material Lieberman wanted removed, while upsetting to many Americans, was clearly protected under the First Amendment. "While we respect and understand [Lieberman's] views, YouTube encourages free speech and defends everyone's right to express unpopular points of view," [Google CEO Eric] Schmidt wrote in his response.

...Amazon's dumping of WikiLeaks at one senator's request brings into stark relief one of the core problems Americans have grappled with since before our country even existed: Where is the right balance between security, on one hand, and civil liberties, on the other?

In Sweden, data center Bahnhof is taking a clear stand in defense of free speech. On December 3, Forbes reported that the company's chief executive had declared Bahnhof will not remove Wikileaks data from it servers until the site is proven to be in violation of Swedish law:

Jon Karlung, Bahnhof’s chief executive, says that despite reported political pressure in the U.S. and France, his company won’t touch those servers until they’re proven to be breaking Swedish law, which hasn’t happened yet. “Swedish laws apply in Sweden. Only the proper authorities can shut this down. There have been no such claims,” Karlung says. “We’re confident that we can continue to operate the servers.”

...“They have to come forward with a court order or something similar that makes it clear that this is something illegal, and there are no signs whatsoever that this material is illegal in Sweden,” says Karlung. “[Someone saying] ‘we prefer you don’t host them’ is not enough.”