Last winter, Amazon Web Services received some negative attention after it dropped WikiLeaks materials from its servers, and WikiLeaks associates accused Amazon of violating their First Amendment rights. But Berkman Center senior researcher Ethan Zuckerman argued in a conversation with CJR that “rights” had nothing to do with it. Whether or not pressure from the U.S. government played a part in the corporate decision, it was, ultimately, a corporate decision. Amazon’s customers don’t have “rights” in the same way that citizens do, beyond the terms of service agreement that no one really reads before checking the “I Agree” box.

Zuckerman was not defending Amazon’s move; rather, he was reminding Amazon’s critics of a point that is very easy to forget, in a time when the Internet is increasingly becoming our society’s “public square.” As he put it:

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.

He later said that the U.S. government should, in fact, explore policy that would “obligate Internet service providers to protect speech in a way that recognizes that it functions as public speech.” But for now, each company seems to be on its own with these kinds of decisions.

Several stories have come out in the past few days that address this intersection between corporate policy and personal rights, highlighting the growing pressure on heads of certain companies—especially technology and communications companies—to take positions they have previously sought to avoid.

A piece by Jennifer Preston in The New York Times on Sunday discussed the ever-pressing “ethical quandary” that social networking sites face as it becomes harder for them to remain politically neutral. As activists throughout the world increasingly rely on networks like Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to communicate with each other and organize political movements, the heads of these companies must decide how they will respond to that growing responsibility.

Often, policies originally established to maintain certain standards of quality on the sites conflict with the needs of the activists who depend on the networks. For instance, an Egyptian blogger Preston spoke with said he thought his Flickr account was being hacked when photographs of members of the country’s state security force he had posted abruptly disappeared from the site; in fact, they were removed because Flickr has a rule prohibiting people from posting photos they did not take themselves. (This was the same reason Amazon gave for removing WikiLeaks from its servers—that the organization did not own the rights to the documents they were hosting.) And an independent journalist in China had his Facebook profile deactivated because, wanting to evade retribution from government censors, he had not used his real name to create the page.

Of course, as Evgeny Morozov often reminds us, despite the irresistible narrative about the liberating potential of technology, activists fighting for freedom and democracy are not the only people who know how to use the Internet for a cause. Populist activists in the Middle East can create Facebook groups to organize street protests; security forces of those countries’ regimes can monitor those pages to cull information and target counter-attacks and future arrests. Preston writes:

One challenge is whether a company should maintain its commitment to remain neutral about content, even when politicized content could offend users or even put people in danger…. For instance, what would the company do if a group that opposes abortion wanted to post photographs of doctors who perform abortions?

It’s a question as old as the web: is an online service provider responsible for the content it hosts? Craigslist (in theory) can be used just as easily to advertise the services of underage prostitutes as it can to sell your old bookshelf. Most websites with any kind of user-generated content, from open message boards to the comment sections of news sites, reserve the right to remove “offensive” content. But do the administrators of those sites have a responsibility to monitor all of it, all the time? And who gets to decide what is “offensive,” anyway? What if it’s an autocratic government doing the deciding?

That’s the case in another important story to come out on Monday in The Wall Street Journal, a look at US technology products that oppressive Middle Eastern regimes from Bahrain to Tunisia are using to block their citizen’s Internet access. Web-filtering products by companies like McAfee and Websense are marketed to schools, libraries, and parents who want to block access to certain websites, such as gambling or porn sites. But the same technology is also being used by governments to block sites that might be critical of their regimes, and to suppress communication among activists. As the WSJ article points out,

For the U.S., the role of Western companies in Internet censorship poses a dilemma. In a speech last year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. And in America, American companies need to take a principled stand.”

Lately the State Department has spent more than $20 million to fund software and technologies that help people in the Middle East circumvent Internet censorship that is sustained by Western technology.

A new report released on Monday by OpenNet Initiative entitled “West Censoring East,” written by Helmi Noman and Jillian C. York, reveals how extensive this practice is, as well:

At least nine Middle Eastern and North African state censors use Western-built technologies to impede access to online content. ISPs in Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Sudan, and Tunisia use the Western-built automated filtering solutions to block mass content, such as websites that provide skeptical views of Islam, secular and atheist discourse, sex, GLBT, dating services, and proxy and anonymity tools. These lists of sites are maintained by the Western company vendors. The ISPs also use these tools to add their own selected URLs to the companies’ black lists.

So what does that mean for those American companies that sell their technology to governments for the express purpose of censorship? Websense, for one, apparently has a policy against doing just that, but its technology has nevertheless been used in Yemen to reveal the identities of people attempting to remain anonymous online from government monitors. A McAfee spokesman told the WSJ that “what an individual customer would do with a product once they acquire it is beyond our control.”

The director of sales and marketing for Netsweeper, a Canadian web-filtering company that has deals in the UAE, Qatar, and Yemen, takes it one step further, saying, “Filtering decisions are made by the entity that decides to filter. Much as Ford Motor Co. can’t decide how [its customers] are going to drive their cars.”

Okay, that’s an interesting analogy. Should we hold a Ford dealership responsible if a person drives drunk and speeds into a pedestrian with that Ford? No—unless, perhaps, the person was drunk when they showed up with their checkbook and asked for the keys. We do hold bars responsible for over-serving their customers. We also require gun stores to follow certain rules and restrictions when selling their weapons. If someone walked into a gun store and told the clerk, “I’m going to buy this gun to go rob a bank and kill some people,” we probably would not look kindly on the clerk then saying, “Hey, what you do with it after you leave here is not my problem.” Depending on which analogy you pick, the company has a different level of responsibility for the consequences of their business dealings.

The point is, as much as the executives of technology and communication corporations may want to avoid taking sides in political conversations, the nature of the way their products are used makes neutrality impossible. Political movements are inextricably intertwined with the communication tools they use, whatever those tools may be.

Activists are going to continue to use Facebook and Twitter to organize and publicize their movements. At the same time, certain governments are going to continue to try to censor that communication and suppress contrary opinion.

And the corporations that are making money from products that serve either, or both, sides of that equation—well, they can’t shut themselves out of this very important conversation for long.

In the OpenNet report, Noman and York point out that despite Western governments’ lip service to worldwide uncensored access to the Internet, we have yet to see any real retribution against Western companies that undermine that freedom. But Noman and York ultimately argue that the responsibility begins with the corporations themselves; they write, “Such companies must recognize the role their tools play in the international landscape and set forth policies that protect Internet users’ right to free expression—or at least put them on record about the role that they play.”

Tow Center director Emily Bell said it best during the taping of an Al Jazeera English program called “Information Wars” at Columbia University last month, when discussing how Google executives were struggling to articulate the company’s policy toward Internet censorship in China. Bell noted that, indeed, corporations and organizations across the world were having similar conversations, and asking themselves the questions, “What is our place, what is our branding, what is our attitude, towards this openness?” She said, “It’s not just the press, it’s not just government, it’s not just military. Everybody has to have a view on this, because you’re all now in the same playground.”

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner