You’re leading the question, but it’s a place I’m happy to be led. I wrote a piece in October called “Public Space, Private Infrastructure” based on a talk I gave at the Open Video Conference, in which I talked about what you’re getting at. I talked about a friend of mine, Wael Abbas, an Egyptian activist who has been responsible for posting more than 200 videos that expose the police brutality and abuse in Egypt on YouTube. At one point, YouTube reacted and pulled them all down. What I said was, ‘I know you all are expecting me to say, YouTube is evil, don’t ever use it’; but actually what I said was that he was right to use YouTube. The reason being, his blog is under a DDoS attack all the time. If he tried to host his own videos, he’d never manage to keep his blog up. Just the infrastructure required to make those videos accessible to the world, and to protect them from attack, basically requires you to crouch under a big rock. YouTube is one of the biggest rocks out there; it makes perfect sense that you’d want to keep your speech there.
However, you have to realize that you’re then dependent on that organization. So you need to choose organizations that have a good track record of protecting people’s rights. YouTube actually does; Facebook, for instance, doesn’t. We’re starting to sort of get a sense for who is better and worse at this. Ideally you’d like to use an organization that has someone who’s dedicated to human rights issues, and whom you can contact if there is a human rights violation related to a takedown of your stuff.
The truth is, if you decide to go it alone, do it yourself, you might find yourself in the situation that my friends recently found themselves in, in Zimbabwe. They run a leading human rights site, and they had purchased hosting by Bluehost, which is a hosting provider. Bluehost woke up one day and said, we shouldn’t be providing services to people in Zimbabwe. Basically it was based on a terrible misinterpretation of U.S. trade sanctions, which are against Bob Mugabe, not against everyone in the country. But they removed the site. Unless you have your own T3 running to your own server, the Internet is privately held. And at some point, you’re going to run into a corporation, and that corporation’s decisions determine whether you stay online or not. And that is troublesome.
In a way, this reminds me of the warrantless wiretapping controversy. Americans tend to think of phone calls as private—or they used to, anyway—but apparently phone companies can make secret deals with the government to let them listen in whenever they want, and do so without telling their customers. That came as a shock to most people.
But at least that’s the government, right? As absurd and horrible as all of that is, and was, the Amazon situation in some ways is even worse. This wasn’t a government decision, this was a corporate decision. If the U.S. government had somehow managed to get an injunction for some court system ordering Amazon to take this down, I would then be asking questions about whether that moved correctly through the legal channels. But what happened here, instead, is that a powerful senator called up Amazon and said, “This is terrible, do the right thing,” and they caved. That should send a message to anyone who is working with Amazon, that Amazon might make the decision to stop providing you services based on your content, or based on a complaint. That’s worrisome.
You said that people should be choosing their service providers carefully, based on the companies’ human rights history, or a person on staff who is dedicated to those types of issues. But is that information that people typically have access to?
I think that it’s information that we’re only going to get through better press coverage of this. I think this is a new issue for most people. I think that most people just haven’t thought through this at all. And when people respond to something like WikiLeaks getting cut off of Amazon by saying, ‘This is a First Amendment issue,’ it shows you how little people actually know about what’s going on.
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