Wikileaks & ICE Domain Seizures Show How Private Intermediaries Get Involved In Government Censorship

from the intermediaries-matter dept

There have been two big stories this week, both of which have elements of US government censorship of speech. The first, of course, is the pressure put on Amazon to drop Wikileaks as a customer of its S3 storage. The second is Homeland Security seizing a bunch of domain names by getting VeriSign to hand them over. In both cases, defenders of these actions claim they're not censorship, but both appear to involve the US government stepping in and either explicitly or implicitly getting a US corporation to block a form of speech. That's concerning.

Of course, beyond the problem that the government would be doing this in the first place is a separate concern: the role of corporations in helping make this happen. Some have argued, in the case of Amazon, that as a private company it has the right to refuse service to anyone. That's absolutely true. But if it's refusing service based on political pressure from those in positions of power, that's still censorship. While I don't buy into the idea that companies like Google and Facebook are monopolies, Ethan Zuckerberg does raise a very good point (talking about the Amazon/Wikileaks situation) about the role of corporate giants as intermediaries that can help a government censor:
If they simply responded to pressure from a US Senator, or to boycott threats, it sends a very disturbing message: that Amazon will remove content under political pressure. Yes, Amazon is within its legal rights to refuse service to a customer… but as I’ve argued previously, they’re a private company responsible for a public space. That’s the nature of the internet – we use it as a space for public discourse, though the sites we use for much of our discussion are owned by private corporations and controlled by terms of service that are significantly more stringent than restrictions on public speech.

The rise of internet hypergiants like Amazon that host servers for hundreds of thousands of clients makes these potential conflicts more clear. If you are dissatisfied with the terms of service of your hosting provider, you can always find another… up to a point. There’s been massive consolidation in the web hosting market, and companies like Amazon are likely to control large shares of the market in the future, both because there are economies of scale in providing low-cost service, and because large server farms can more effectively defend from attacks like DDoS. But if large providers like Amazon won’t take on clients like Wikileaks, they’re forced onto smaller ISPs, which may be more costly and less able to thwart DDoS attacks.
I'm not as convinced that this is a problem in the web server space yet. There are still other places that Wikileaks can certainly go. But when it comes to domain names, the central nature of companies like VeriSign is at least a concern. It's also why more distributed solutions become a lot more interesting.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2010 @ 3:17pm

    Wasn't Verisign operating under a court order? Even if the order was wrong to be issued, it was nevertheless issued. (Or am I getting confused again?)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Rick Shera, Dec 2nd, 2010 @ 3:21pm

    The increasing Intermediary role

    I wrote about this from a NZ perspective recently - more and more laws in all sorts of areas forcing unaccountable private coproration ISPs, hosts etc to take action to effectively censor the internet - its an international slippery slope

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2010 @ 3:30pm

    MPAA Statement On Google’s Taking Steps To Address Online Copyright Infringement

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
  5. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2010 @ 3:33pm

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2010 @ 3:42pm

    And here we go to the next iteration of the internet where distributed webhosting will start to pop up everywhere.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Richard Kulawiec, Dec 2nd, 2010 @ 4:28pm

    It doesn't matter...

    ...even if Google succeeded completely, someone would just come up with another search engine to index what they were omitting.

    Correction: another 10 search engines.

    If domain name are confiscated, alternate roots will be set up. Or P2P DNS will be deployed.

    If DPI is used, then encryption will be deployed.

    If connection throttling is used, then spread-spectrum techniques will be deployed.


    All that will happen is that the MAFIAA will continue to rip off artists and creators, enrich its executives and attorneys, and piss away a pile of money in a battle it lost a long time ago.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    BruceLD, Dec 2nd, 2010 @ 7:24pm


    I'd like to know the total cost of the bill to taxpayers for this, along with the real-world numbers on how successful they were at stopping counterfeiting and piracy.

    I'm sure every penny of tax payers dollars were well spent. ;)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Cowardly Anon, Dec 3rd, 2010 @ 7:05am

    Whatever. Not like it did any good. It looks like they just removed the address from DNS.

    Want to hit the site? Use the IP address:


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Hephaestus (profile), Dec 3rd, 2010 @ 7:06am

    Re: It doesn't matter...

    I agree with everything you are saying. This is going to begin escalating out of control. It reminds me of what MI6 warned about last year. Going after infringers is going to cause encryption to be used in a major, way making the world a less safe place. It will however increase privacy and decrease the governments ability to monitor us. Which is a good thing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    packrat (profile), Dec 3rd, 2010 @ 4:39pm


    the net was used to smother opposition, not porn, not crime, not spam. ( ie:

    THEN the big biz got into the act. Phara etc, killed traffic.

    next up, films and TV. from small supppliers, right?

    from cop, to priest to judge.

    pre emtive guilties are in line now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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