The big First Amendment news this week is that Amazon Web Services cut off WikiLeaks. They say it was because WikiLeaks violated their terms of service, most people think it was due to pressure from Senator Joe Lieberman. We know for sure that Tableau Software took down some data visualizations based on the leaks at the request of Senator Lieberman. Last night, their DNS provider cut them off.
Columbia Journalism Review interviewed researcher Ethan Zuckerman about what these takedowns mean for the rest of us. Here’s the bottom line:
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.
What the WikiLeaks incident shows us is that there’s always somebody who can cut you off. Even if you run your site on your own software on an open source platform on a server sitting in your living room, your Internet access can be cut off, or your DNS provider can shut you down. If you host your content on a commercial provider or on a social network, there are different points at which you can be cut off. If your speech is published on the Internet, it’s published with the consent of one (and probably more) entities who have no obligation to respect your First Amendment rights.
The closest you can get is peer-to-peer sharing, which is why the government and corporations hate it so much.