The term intermediary censorship was coined by Ethan Zuckerman, in a very interesting ONI-publication named Access Controlled, which handles the strategies of governments around the world to shape and control cyberspace.
Of course the service providers have the right to do so and we as users have the choice whether to use those services or not, but the main issue here is to which extent can we rely on privately owned spaces (i.e. services) for us to carry out our free speech? Especially if those services have a lot going-on on their agenda before free speech…
The last few weeks we have had a clear example of how this situation can get completely messed up, and yes, I mean the way WikiLeaks and its activists are being hunted down in all possible fronts.
Some of the highlights
(please keep in mind – what you read here is just the tip of the iceberg, there have been and probably will be many more):
- French hosting company OVH, to which WikiLeaks moved after Amazon stopped hosting the website, took WikiLeaks’ server offline in response to pressure from the French government.
Those cases raise two concerning issues:
First, as state above, to which extent can we rely on private companies to protect free speech?
Second is the worrying phenomenon of governments, which are normally supportive of free speech, not just trying to take WikiLeaks out but doing it outside of their authorities. It is clearly defined that if someone is to decide whether a website (or some of its content) should go down, it is the court of law. Not the government and especially not one politician (remember Joe Lieberman?) or political-party.
- Economic suffocation tactics, analyzed by specialists to be the same as those who target terrorist groups:
Those institutions have too the right not to give their services to certain clients. But again there are several concerning issues that are to be raised:
First are the clear double standards. Ku-Klux-Klan is just one of the horrible institutions who continue to receive services from Visa and Mastercard, PayPal probably has also a few on its list. So how could those companies claim they have stopped their service to WikiLeaks because they don’t support illegal activity (although no court of law found WikiLeaks illegal yet), but still support institutions, which are openly calling for racism, discrimination, violence etc.?!
Second is the right of a client to do as he/she wishes with his/her money. The clients (and not the financial institutions!) are the ones to decide if a contribution to WikiLeaks is ethical or not and it is their money, which is being contributed. This applies also to the Swiss bank – a bank does not have anything to do with the intended purpose of the money in an account, let alone a legal defense of a person in court. Let us not forget that the accusations are for a sexual crime and (allegedly) don’t have anything to do with WikiLeaks. But the intention is clear – closing on Julian Assange.
Having three major financial institutions in the (neo-liberal) US and one in (the neutral) Switzerland surrendering to political lobbying is a frightening fact. It shows us that if governments are not able to take down an institution that they don’t like within their legitimate authority (in WikiLeaks’ case – official censorship in the US or Europe is possible only with a court order), they are still able to financially suffocate this institution and its activists.
The actions taken by the US government and others (who had to play along?) have clear watch and beware tactics. These can make one wonder…
- What are the US and other governments so afraid of? What else could WikiLeaks unveil?
- Is it so controversial that they’re willing to sacrifice their support of free speech and principles of democracy for it?
- Why are they so anxious to frighten potential followers of WikiLeaks from taking its place (if and when it will come down)?
- Doesn’t it create a contra-productive affect, making people more interested in the real revelations on WikiLeaks (and not the government-gossip)? Making people more supportive of WikiLeaks’ struggle? Making the media and public more critical?
- Or is it just a kind of psychological compensation for the US government, demonstrating its power after being embarrassed publically (once again)?
** This post is a part of the Drawer2.0 alternative coverage of the WikiLeaks case: What the media doesn’t tell you and which issues are really at stake. Click here to read more.