Censorship in the age of information
//by Dexter Fergie

“A new information curtain is descending across much of the world [and] no nation, no group, no individual should stay buried in the rubble of oppression. We cannot stand by while people are separated from the human family by walls of censorship.”

While the focus of this article may lead you to believe that the above quotation is accredited to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, it is not. The above quotation was delivered straight from the mouth of the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton less than one year ago at a conference titled Internet Freedom. Intending to send a message to authoritarian regimes abroad regarding their lack of online freedoms, the strong rhetoric has taken on a new and startling significance in the wake of the latest WikiLeaks releases.

In late November, WikiLeaks began publicly disclosing 250,000 confidential American diplomatic cables to the fret of both the U.S. government and their political partners. The cables chronicle the last three years of international relations from the eyes of American diplomats, unearthing the embarrassing and frequently incriminating details that come along with diplomacy.

The fallout of the WikiLeaks opprobrium has been a very telling demonstration of the disdain the U.S. government truly has for online freedoms, and more importantly the censorship mechanisms not at their disposal, but available to the companies servicing the web. At times, cyberspace appears to be relatively free and democratic. Over the previous month and a half however, a slew of companies have flexed their capacity for control in the face of pressure from members of the U.S. government. It is not so much that our free and democratic digital terrain is eroding; rather the Internet is now revealing its true colours, its censorship capabilities. “A new information curtain is descending…”

In response to the release, pressure from the U.S. government has mounted on the

handful of companies affiliated with WikiLeaks. One senator, Joseph Lieberman, chimed, “I call on any company or organization that is hosting WikiLeaks to immediately terminate its relationship with them." These commands did not go unheeded, as companies have pulled the plug on Wikileaks en masse. In a matter of days, EveryDNS, Amazon, Visa, PayPal, MasterCard, Bank of America and Apple each severed relations with WikiLeaks. Surviving, WikiLeaks has been forced to move servers and hosts multiple times, and find new methods of receiving revenue. The same firms that allowed WikiLeaks to exist have each exercised their rights to extirpate its very existence.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a scholar on the subject of online freedoms, explains how the terms of service make explicit this right. For example, Amazon’s “terms of service clearly state that it ‘reserves the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content in its sole discretion,’” and by clicking “agree,” the customer has legally consented to this digital fine-print. The content featured on sites hosted by companies like Amazon, “is not protected in the same way that speech is constitutionally protected in America's public spaces.” In other words, much of the Internet is legally not public space.

The legal rights of Amazon and other companies to curtail freedom of speech within the Internet pose an incredible problem to us netizens living in the age of information. Public discourse has shifted to the Internet, and as MacKinnon put it, “this realm is largely made up of virtual spaces that are created, owned and operated by the private sector.” Of course these firms are acting within the legally enshrined rights when they modify or censor content within their domains, but should the companies we depend on to exercise our rights of freedom of speech not be accountable to the public’s interest? Was Amazon responding appropriately by severing ties with WikiLeaks after a disgruntled U.S. senator conveyed an informal warning?

Of course, the Wikileaks story is not all gloom and alarm. A digital backlash on a grand scale has erupted in response to the actions taken by each of those companies. Since being dropped by numerous website providers, nearly 2,200 mirror sites have been propped up through servers spanning the globe, effectively “mirroring” all the information posted on the original WikiLeaks site. Like the heads of Hydra, once existing only on a single site, the cables have now reproduced and multiplied, sprouting new locations throughout the Internet.

These efforts to overcome censorship are beacons of hope for online freedom, but unfortunately, time spent online is still dominated by digital giants such as Facebook (your profile is not yours in any legal sense) and the Mac App Stores (controversial apps need not apply) where users enjoy diminished rights. Those championing our new media democracy beware: things are not as liberating as they seem. As the WikiLeaks scandal has shown, the Internet is only free until the companies providing digital platforms choose otherwise. And where freedom of expression does not exist in its entirety, neither does a democratic and free society.

//Dexter Fergie, Writer

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