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Freedom of the Press Is Guaranteed Only to Those Who Own Their Own Server

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, December 3 2010

Reflecting on Amazon's craven decision to pre-emptively cave in to pressure from U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman and kick Wikileaks off its cloud servers, the thought occurs to me that it's time to update A.J. Liebling's old saying. Freedom of the press is not guaranteed to those who own one, but to those who own their own server.

Amazon's stated reasons for dumping Wikileaks, without warning or chance of appeal, don't wash. In its blog post, Amazon says the group was in violation of its terms of service:

....our terms of service state that “you represent and warrant that you own or otherwise control all of the rights to the content… that use of the content you supply does not violate this policy and will not cause injury to any person or entity.” It’s clear that WikiLeaks doesn’t own or otherwise control all the rights to this classified content. Further, it is not credible that the extraordinary volume of 250,000 classified documents that WikiLeaks is publishing could have been carefully redacted in such a way as to ensure that they weren’t putting innocent people in jeopardy.

First of all, no one can own copyright on government documents, however they are obtained. (Hat tip to lawyer Cathy Gellis for pointing this out on her Twitter feed last night.) So Amazon's first reason is a stake in the heart of any news organization that might use its servers while covering public documents.

Second, Amazon is wrong to claim that Wikileaks has failed to redact the documents it is publishing to take care to prevent injury to others. Only about 700 cables have been actually published so far in full text; the reference to an "extraordinary volume" of 250,000 being available is plainly wrong. Julian Assange said today that every document that is being published is going through redaction first. As he wrote in his Q&A with the Guardian:

"The cables we have release[d] correspond to stories released by our main stream media partners and ourselves. They have been redacted by the journalists working on the stories, as these people must know the material well in order to write about it. The redactions are then reviewed by at least one other journalist or editor, and we review samples supplied by the other organisations to make sure the process is working."

It's obviously impossible for anyone using Amazon's servers to prove, before the fact, that nothing they're publishing will not cause injury to anyone else. Indeed, Amazon itself stocks and sells all kinds of books that someone can buy and use to learn how to cause injury to others, such as The Anarchist Cookbook, Zips, Pipes and Pens: Arsenal of Improvised Weapons, and The Do-It-Yourself Gunpowder Cookbook. Personally, I believe those books should be available to readers; in general I believe the way to combat speech you dislike is with more speech, not less. And when government authorities try to censor speech or block access to information, the response we should take is to push back, not cave in. Shame on Amazon.