This article was published on December 4, 2010

The greater problem of Wikileaks: When innocent sites become the victims

The greater problem of Wikileaks: When innocent sites become the victims
Brad McCarty
Story by

Brad McCarty

A music and tech junkie who calls Nashville home, Brad is the Director TNW Academy. You can follow him on Twitter @BradMcCarty. A music and tech junkie who calls Nashville home, Brad is the Director TNW Academy. You can follow him on Twitter @BradMcCarty.

Over the past few weeks, it’s almost impossible to open a browser without seeing something about Wikileaks. The site, embroiled in controversy, has brought more than its share of problems to other businesses, as well. At this point, Amazon, PayPal and others have all had Government pressure to cease services to the site. The question that comes up is what happens if and/or when your own site becomes involved with a situation such as the one surrouding Wikileaks.

The Amazon Experience

Amazon has found itself in two situations, recently, wherein it had to make difficult business decisions. In the first case, its self-publishing format for the Kindle was playing host to a book that served as an instruction manual for keeping a pedophile safe. After public outrage, Amazon first chose to continue hosting the book, stating that it didn’t condone censorship:

Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable.

The site did eventually pull the book, perhaps succumbing to the public understanding that Amazon as a retailer was making a choice to profit from its sale. Further, censorship is a word that Amazon representatives did not seem to fully understand. As the publisher, Amazon has the sole ability to decline to publish a work; a situation that happens in publishing houses daily.

With Wikileaks, Amazon’s AWS played host to the information that was being disseminated. Government pressure was laid onto Amazon to pull the content, and Amazon eventually did. However, a statement from Amazon paints a different light onto the scenario than what we as the public would have believed:

There have been reports that a government inquiry prompted us not to serve WikiLeaks any longer. That is inaccurate…AWS does not pre-screen its customers, but it does have terms of service that must be followed. WikiLeaks was not following them.

The obvious question is whether Amazon should adopt a pre-screening policy for its hosting. While it absolutely would add to the work for Amazon, it might prevent future issues. Simply put, Amazon likely did get clued to the potential Wikileaks issues but the problem could have been averted by a screening method.

The Trials of Twitter

A couple of years ago, the US Military released a report detailing the ways in which terrorist organizations could use Twitter and other forms of online communication to plan attacks. While we’re not at the point of calling Wikileaks a terrorist organization, recent government pressure against other sites leads us to believe that Twitter could be next. Given that the Wikileaks account is still active on Twitter, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Twitter have to answer those questions as a U.S.-based business.

We’ve reached out to Twitter for comment, but as of yet have not received a response. However, given past circumstances surrounding activities deemed illegal in the United States, Twitter would likely point to its terms of service. This is a simple rule that nearly any site needs to think of in advance when hosting user-submitted content. Those terms of service are a life-saver, as long as they’re enforced.

PayPal Problems

As was the case with Amazon, PayPal has a distinctly different problem on its hands. In being the donation source for Wikileaks, not only was PayPal enabling the site to continue financially, but also PayPal was benefitting monetarily via its surcharges. While PayPal has now cut off Wikileaks’ access to its financial donations through the site, there will likely still be questions to be answered by PayPal from the U.S. government agencies that are now involved.

Who’s Next?

At first, the only sites which had to worry about the Wikileaks ordeal were those hosting content in affected countries. However, as the case continues to grow, more sites are becoming part of the grand scheme, even if unwittingly. At this point, any site which hosts, links to or otherwise makes available the Wikileaks content runs the risk of government involvement — especially those based in the United States.

So who’s next? It’s a question to which the answer remains to be seen. Moving forward, it is simply advisable that site owners are more cognizant of what is being hosted on their servers. This situation has shown us, at a minimum, that the release of information holds the capability of causing problems for everyone, even if a site had no intention of becoming involved.

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