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In WikiLeaks aftermath, an assault on free speech

The U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks offer unvarnished insights into the personal proclivities of world leaders.

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The most important legacy of the WikiLeaks affair will almost surely be the rapidly escalating cyberwar that the group's renegade disclosures have sparked. If you think you're unaffected by unseen "battles" fought with keystrokes instead of bullets, you're wrong.

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At stake are issues of free speech, censorship, privacy, piracy, sovereignty and corporate power. We may know what we think about these concepts, but applying real-world logic to the Internet leads to unacceptable conclusions - such as sympathy for the goons in Iran or China who suppress anti-government political speech. This is, of course, out of the question. Which means sympathy for WikiLeaks nihilists who don't deserve it.

Let me start at the beginning, with the decision last month by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to begin posting a hoarde of confidential State Department diplomatic cables. U.S. officials protested that the release was damaging to national security but acknowledged that there was little they could do about it.

Within days, however, WikiLeaks was without a cyberhome: Amazon Web Services, a subsidiary of the giant online retailer Amazon.com, abruptly ceased hosting the WikiLeaks Web site - not because of the government's mounting anger, Amazon said, but because WikiLeaks had violated the company's "terms of service" agreement.

Before using practically any Internet service or software for the first time, you have to accede to a long, dense agreement. Actually taking the time to read one of these documents - rather than just clicking the "accept" button - is headache-inducing but revelatory. Essentially, you agree that the company providing the service or the software can do anything it wants to your account, at any time, for any reason, and you have no recourse.

In this case, WikiLeaks violated Amazon's requirements that the user "own or otherwise control all of the rights to the content" posted on the Amazon web servers and that the content "will not cause injury to any person or entity." Clearly WikiLeaks failed those tests, although I doubt that every other Web site hosted by Amazon Web Services is in strict compliance.

WikiLeaks quickly found a new host server in Switzerland. Meanwhile, angry supporters of Assange - operating under the unoriginal collective name "Anonymous" - launched a cyberattack against Amazon, at one point bringing the company's European sales to a halt.

Visa, MasterCard and PayPal also quit doing business with WikiLeaks, citing possible violations of their service agreements. The cyberguerrillas of Anonymous began assailing those companies, too, in what the hackers called "Operation Payback." Their weapon of choice has been a "distributed denial of service" attack, which is basically an orchestrated massive overload.

Last Wednesday, police in Rotterdam arrested a 16-year-old boy in connection with the Anonymous attacks; it turns out that the software the group uses does not guarantee anonymity. The Anonymous group promptly trained its fire on the Internet operations of the Dutch government.

By then, however, an anti-WikiLeaks group of hackers had launched "Operation Fightback" - an attack against the Anonymous group. At least one of the Anonymous servers was knocked offline.

And, at least for a time, the wildly popular social networking sites Facebook and Twitter took down the pages that Anonymous members had been using to coordinate their electronic warfare. This brings me, finally, to those unsettling questions about censorship and free speech.

When Iranian protesters were challenging the thuggish regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs last year, censors managed to shut down television coverage. But the world learned what was happening via Facebook and Twitter. Likewise, those internet sites - Facebook has more than 500 million users worldwide, and Twitter an estimated 200 million - are important conduits for pro-democracy advocates in places such as China and Cuba.

So who gives executives of private companies the right to decide that some unapproved speech will be encouraged and some will be suppressed? Do we want the people who run Amazon, PayPal, Facebook, Twitter or perhaps even - shudder - Microsoft, Apple or Google making political decisions on our behalf?

For my part, I don't think I do. It seems to me that especially as Internet firms reach near-monopoly status, we should be increasingly uncomfortable with them making political decisions of any kind - even those with which we might agree.

I don't particularly enjoy defending Assange, WikiLeaks or a bunch of irresponsible hackers. But I don't want the companies that regulate interaction and commerce on the Internet deciding whose views are acceptable and whose are not. The "terms of service" agreement that should take precedence is the First Amendment.

Eugene Robinson will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


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