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.

Filed Under: censorship, companies, free speech, homeland security, ice, intermediaries, internet
Companies: amazon, verisign, wikileaks

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