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Opinions of Wikileaks in the wake of its publication of tens of thousands of classified US diplomatic cables certainly varies. Some have noted that it’s hard to claim the cables were terribly secret since 2-3 million government employees have clearance to see this level of “secret” document, and 500,000 of these people have access to the Secret Internet Protocol Network (SIPRnet) where the cables were stored. Others have pointed to the embarrassment and erosion of trust associated with their release as an obstacle to American diplomatic efforts.

No matter your opinion, one aspect of the swirl of stories emanating from the Wikileaks diplomacy scandal should trouble publishers and librarians alike — the fact that service providers like Amazon and PayPal are backing away from Wikileaks, invoking “terms of service” and “acceptable use policies” to justify their actions.

Newsweek’s Chief Operating Officer, Joseph Galarneau, writes in an excellent essay that:

The power of the press can be dramatically limited when the power to the press is disconnected. Outside the newspaper industry, few publishers actually own their own printing presses. U.S. courts rarely exercise prior restraint (orders that prohibit publication), and most printers rely on their customers to shoulder the legal liability if there are disputes. But as Amazon’s silencing of Wikileaks demonstrates, the rules can change when media companies move on to the Internet, with its very different methods of publishing.

Amazon’s justification for revoking Wikileaks’ access to the Amazon Web Services (AWS) is that their terms of service state that anyone using AWS must have rights to the content posted there, and that the content posted “will not cause injury to any person or entity.”

Amazon has a conflict of interest as a cloud services provider, namely the importance of retaining the reputation of its retail store at all costs. AWS provides Amazon with a fraction of its revenues, so when the storefront might be smeared by a scandal at AWS, it’s clear how to resolve the conflict of interest — kick the offending content off AWS. As a retailer, Amazon has more at stake with its reputation as a safe, palatable place to shop. Becoming embroiled in a worldwide information scandal isn’t their cup of tea.

While the usual denials and accusations percolate, reports seem to zero-in on Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut), Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, as the person who applied pressure for Amazon to pull the plug on Wikileaks. Wikileaks ultimately had to do what you’d expect in the physical world — retreat to a site hosted in Switzerland. It seems political neutrality is also necessary on the Internet.

With Google, Apple, and Amazon dominating the digital information space as they do, we can expect more of this until digital media matures to the degree printed media has.

Clay Shirky, writing about the long-term balance of transparency and opacity necessary in a civil society, notes that pressuring Amazon and PayPal to invoke their terms of service is essentially a craven act on behalf of the government:

When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want.

Nicholas Carr, writing about this topic and the same essay from Galarneau, asks:

The cloud is a fickle medium, with restrictive and even capricious terms of service. Is there any journalism worth its salt that doesn’t somehow cause harm to “a person or entity”?

The same could be said for a good deal of medical research. Studies of drugs later found to have unanticipated side-effects in the long-term are potentially harmful, and cloud providers could assert such materials be removed under their terms of service.

The Scholarly Kitchen itself is hosted in the cloud, being on the public version of WordPress. What if we violated a term of service? Would WordPress be within its rights to shut us down? Or does the First Amendment protect WordPress as a provider? These matters of law are not settled.

Amazon isn’t the only provider dropping Wikileaks while asserting violations of terms of service. PayPal also dropped Wikileaks late last week, with a tersely worded statement on its blog:

PayPal has permanently restricted the account used by WikiLeaks due to a violation of the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy, which states that our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity. We’ve notified the account holder of this action.

Cloud computing and services like PayPal can provide publishers with cost-effective storage and technology solutions. However, until they are managed in a way that accommodates the realities of publishing — the controversies, the risks, the scandals, and the law — we shouldn’t trust commercial cloud services.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


20 Thoughts on "Is the Cloud Too Weak to Support What Paper Can?"

Your argument seems to be that, because publishers sometimes break the law in the name of freedom of information, therefore service providers have a moral obligation to help them. While breaking the law can be a moral act of civil disobedience no one has an obligation to do it. Nobody has to break the law unless they want to.

I think that service providers need to grown up and not put in place terms of service that are full of weasel words and CYA legalese. If they’re going to be a robust part of the future, they need to “man up” and align themselves with the demands of a free society. Or not. Right now, they appear to be too unreliable for our democracy to depend upon.

Theft and release of classified information is illegal as I understand it. As far as I know it is illegal to even read classified information without a clearance and a need to know. I used to handle a lot of this stuff when I built a technology forecasting system for the Navy. But I have never actually read the laws that govern it. We could.

But if it has been misreported and this is not classified material then my comment does not apply.

what happened to the argument in your headline that paper can somehow support things that clouds can’t?

Good point, I probably made that too implicit. Publisher’s insurance, the way laws are applied and understood around print publishing platforms (printers, mailers, and libraries), etc., all make it safer to publish things in print. Notice that nobody’s going after the newspapers — the Pentagon Papers and other situations established legal and cultural precedents that would make doing so seem wrong. But for the government to lean on cloud providers? Easily done, apparently.

The snippet from Amazon’s explanation on the takedown of Wikileaks.
“you represent and warrant that you own or otherwise control ALL of the rights to the content…”

Emphasis mine.

As stated (and used to justify removal) that excludes publishers who post material that others retain copyright in. Such as research papers( copyright with author), images (likewise), anything under a share alike or restricted use type license, anything in fact where the use controls for objects in an item belong to multiple persons or entities. As stated, I don’t think Wikipedia could be hosted by Amazon web services as clearly Wikipedia does not own or control ALL the rights to the content.

For the record, like Clay Shirky, I’m very conflicted about what wikileaks has done. But it’s clear to me that it isn’t illegal.

What is the legal precedent with the Pentagon Papers? How did the publisher get off?

As the article makes clear the precedent is vague at best. I would say it is well within Amazon’s right not to allow this publication via their system, since the material clearly was obtained illegally. How wise their decision was is another matter.

I think Amazon et al are aligned to the motive of making money – cloud or no cloud they’re commercial organizations with profits to protect. They’re not charities – perhaps a more open source provider would be a better venue for wikileaks?

Printers and mailers are also for-profit entities, yet they’ll print and distribute information from Wikileaks. Being for-profit isn’t an excuse, in my opinion. Being conflicted about your mission — Is Amazon a retailer, a service provider, or a publishing platform? — is what creates problems.

It’s ironic, then, that a company like Perfect 10 has failed in the courts to get such services penalized when they support pirate sites. Is there no justice in this world?

Justice is fickle and sporadic, my friend. And eating chocolate at every meal will make you gain weight. That argues against both justice and intelligent design.

Technological revolutions, especially in communication, often raise new legal issues. These typically take decades to resolve, longer that the Web has existed.

This is a huge, huge issue for libraries, too, which increasingly lease information that is owned and controlled by people who don’t have the same values about access and preservation.

A similar argument has been used against those touting PubMed Central as ‘the’ repository for journal articles – i.e. what is to stop the government decreeing that certain authors/countries should be excluded?

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