What I have found most significant in the WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables is not the information itself or the fact it was leaked, but the moves by governments and large corporate web services to cut off avenues of access or support for the organization.
Online retailer Amazon, which leases spare web server capacity to third parties, booted WikiLeaks from its servers. The company cited a violation of its terms of service. However, it was generally understood to be a response to political pressure from U.S. senators. After that WikiLeaks moved to a French web hosting company, and the French are now looking to ban it.
Open-source data visualization program Tableau Public removed WikiLeaks-published visualizations from its site, citing political pressure. The Library of Congress even blocked access to WikiLeaks from its public computers, classifying it as a “malicious” site, which it clearly is not. Then PayPal, owned by eBay Inc., froze WikiLeaks’ account and blocked donations.
Reporters Without Borders condemned such moves as “the first time we have seen an attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency.”
All of this brings into clear focus a contradiction of the web — a public thing with private owners. It is best described by Ethan Zuckerman, who told CJR:
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 the late 20th century, the consolidation of major media outlets into the hands of a few major corporations was an issue of great concern and debate. Its importance diminished significantly in the 21st century as online services democratized media production and conversation and displaced the central role of mainstream news media in controlling information flow.
Now, however, we all must realize that these online services are also controlled by corporations with commercial and political interests. Just as GE, Disney, News Corp., Viacom and the like posed a threat to an open marketplace of ideas in mass media, the new corporate lords of the web can pose a threat to online freedoms that have been taken for granted.
eBay Inc. has contributed $3.4 million to federal political committees and spent $13.2 million on lobbying since 1997. Amazon.com has contributed at least $500,000 to federal candidates since 2003, according to OpenSecrets.org. Beyond those involved in WikiLeaks censorship so far, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Go Daddy (to pick a few) spend millions lobbying in Washington. So when someone like Sen. Joe Lieberman calls to complain about something they’re hosting, they listen.
This is why encoding principles such as net neutrality and an Internet Bill of Rights into national and international law is so important. Commercial and political interests will always find it beneficial to suppress some things from being said or published online — and as the WikiLeaks experience has shown, they are currently able do so without due process or subject to appeal.
* A footnote: I anticipate counterarguments that claim this is an exceptional case because it concerns classified documents, obtained illegally, arguably (though not at all proven to be) damaging to U.S. diplomacy. Even so, it does not follow that the end of removing them justifies the means of corporate and political censorship without due process. Beware that any effort to claim censorship authority always seeks first to use the public’s natural abhorrence of outlier cases (racism, hate speech, child pornography) to justify giving authority to censor in all cases. The sensitivity of these leaked documents is not the issue — it is the now-demonstrated ease with which political and corporate interests may collude to try to expel something they dislike from the Internet.