Friday, February 25, 2011

Wikileaks, online intermediaries and privatised censorship

A ppt below of a talk I gave at a very interesting workshop on the whole spectrum of Wikileaks associated issues, convened with admirable alacrity by Rachel Crawfurd-Smith at Edinburgh.

Reminded of this as currently sitting at Georgia Tech U in Atlanta who kindly invited me to their Workshop on Free and Open Communication on the Internet. It becomes more and more apparent that although in Iran, China and Libya, the state may openly censor the Internet, in the developed world, censorship exists also, but is more often happening "under the wire" - in the form of voluntary removal or blocking of content by privately owned hosts or ISPs (eg You Tube, Amazon, BT) - either because of covert pressure from states or , more commonly perhaps, because there is no money or actual commercial risk in hosting upsetting content. This raises a key issue: what if any are the social responsibilities of private bodies to sacrifice their own profits to preserve human rights?

I don't think I'm particularly cynical here: I know thoughtful, clever, aware and socially conscious people working high up in inter alia Google, Microsoft , HP and various ISPs (and at the IWF). But I genuinely don't see why a not particularly evil private company would not choose to enforce its terms of service differentially eg not to lose important advertisers. These choices are hard enough for newspapers with traditional journalistic values : which are not part of the substratum of most ISPs and hosts.

Wendy Seltzer from the Berkman Centre points to the Global Net Initiative group of companies , and at this workshop we've heard of a great many promising Google initiatives (or co-initiatives): Chilling Effects; Transparency Report; and the fact that Blogger has good anti DDOS protection and thus hosts many activist blogs. But with no offense to Google (where some of my best friends, etc, etc), these acts of charity too have to be placed in the context of Google's own worldwide efforts to win public and regulatory support for its other battles - with Viacom, with the copyright industry, with Italy over privacy etc. When it becomes useful for Google's profit margin and existence to work against free speech rather than for it - what corporate social value will take precedence then?