Two tales of free speech

Amazon got WikiLeaks. Google got The Innocence of Muslims.

Each company hosted the controversial content, on Amazon Web Services and YouTube respectively. Both of these are self-service platforms. Members of the public upload what they wish and are legally responsible for it. The companies neither vet nor admit any legal responsibility for the content. Both companies have terms-of-use clauses that prohibit interfering with IT (flood attacks, etc) and copyright violations. Amazon also has a catch-all “no content that might reflect badly on us” clause, and YouTube doesn’t.

When the stories broke out, Amazon quickly kicked WikiLeaks off their servers. This was not motivated by a legal or political request – Amazon just decided to do so. See their statement here: So far, Google is still hosting the anti-Islam video but is blocking it in the Middle East. The White House asked Google to consider taking it down, but Google declined.

No-one has been harmed by WikiLeaks as far as I know, other than the source of the leak who is detained in the US. There was grave risk that people in the spy services, their informants, and perhaps well-meaning dissidents might be imprisoned, tortured, or killed as a result of being identified. The WikiLeaks team made a diligent effort to minimize this risk by redacting, and as far as I know there were no confirmed or officially claimed victims. Of course given the secrecy we may never know. So far, several people have been killed in Libya as a result of anger at the anti-Islam film, including the US ambassador, and there have been riots elsewhere.

In both cases, the decision to release the material in the first place, and then to not take it down, is a difficult moral decision balancing some important value or expected good to society against serious risk to the lives of others. Information of course kills no-one. Other people, who do the killing, are responsible for their actions. However their actions are easy to anticipate so deciding to release carries at least some moral responsibility. You can say it’s reckless.

The motivation to release NATO secrets by WikiLeaks is obviously and credibly to create a more open and just society. That includes the abstract concept of an open society where government is accountable, which most people at least pay lip service to in the West, and specifically throwing a spanner in the dirty works of the US and other governments. The latter is less popular – it certainly caused great anger in the administration itself. The motivation for the anti-Muslim film was obviously hatred: either to express the author’s own prejudice and hatred or a more calculated effort to incite hatred in others. It contains no serious criticism or anything else worthwhile.

Reactions to WikiLeaks when it came out have been mixed. Many hailed it as a much needed effort to safeguard democracy, by exposing the work of governments to their citizens so that the citizens may hold government accountable. I hold this view. Others complained that it simply undermines and impedes the executive function of government, implying that it is not really supposed to be so scrutinised. Beyond these relatively reasoned views, there was some patriotic hatred in the US. In the case of the anti-Islam film there was of course a wave, literally riots, of patriotic hatred in the Muslim world and disapproval everywhere. Conveniently, since the video is such a poorly made and vacuous piece of prejudice, no-one is defending it.

As you know, Bradley Manning, a US soldier and the source of the WikiLeaks leak has been detained for over two years and has been charged but not yet tried. That is against legal rules designed to prevent indefinite detention. Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks site master, is wanted for an unrelated offense in Sweden but claims with reasonable credibility that he is a fugitive from indefinite or unjust detention in the US. The random idiot who made the anti-Muslim film has been arrested for breaking his parole terms, which is another grey way of detaining someone. None of this looks good for the rule of law or human rights.

What would have happened if Google had landed WikiLeaks and Amazon had the pleasure of hosting The Innocence of Muslims? Would the companies have acted differently, and would it have mattered? I don’t think it would have made much difference politically for the world, but it may be a matter of interest for industry watchers.

What if WikiLeaks had released a mountain of dirty secrets of other governments, say Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, or Indonesia instead of the US and its allies? What if some joker in the Middle East, or Russia, or North Korea had made a deeply offensive video about the west and Christianity, or more likely our decadent and self-serving secular lifestyle? In that case the conclusion is as obvios as it is revealing: Nothing much would have happened.

3 thoughts on “Two tales of free speech

  1. Free speech . You have freedom to state your opinion but in a way that hurts the others. Your freedom stops where somebody elses’s freedom starts; (You are free to swing your fist in the air , but not if it hits my nose!). When exercising your freedom, pay attention that you are not intruding in somebody else’s freedom area. The others have the right to privacy, protection and to religion among other things. Once we respect this rule and apply it without double standards we will not need all these discussions.

    • It’s more complicated than that. In the west the moral boundary is between speech and physical action. Usually, any kind of offensive speech is tolerated but touching and hitting another person is not. That’s usually how it is. So Westerners do not believe that insulting muslims (or anyone) actually hurts them.

      Of course western standards of “free speech” are very hypocritical. For example we can say anything but not official secrets, trade secrets, copyrighted material, racist or hate speech in some cases, certain political views in other cases, types of obscene speech in other cases, false accusation or defamation against a person, or speech that offends powerful political groups.

      Personally I would prefer speech to have zero consequences, in other words everything permitted. If we’re going to make lots of exceptions, it seems reasonable to stop religiously offensive speech. It’s absurd that copyright is enforced more strongly than religious tolerance.

      But there are also very strong reasons for free speech. The main reason the West values free speech, especially speech that is offensive to religious leaders or rulers, is to stop elites declaring themselves immune from criticism, i.e. punishing anyone who speaks against them. Many in the west feel that Muslim clergy is claiming this status and that’s bad, including for ordinary Muslims.

      • QUicoproco, talking about the same thing from diferent perspectives. We the people in muslim countries would love to have some extraterrestrian force to come in and enforce free speech in our countries. to tell you we are not against it at all. The people that resorted to violence are extremists and extremists are few and extremists are in the western world as well as in the eastern one or muslim if you will. Resorting to force happens more in the western civilisation than in the eastern one and it is institutionalized and organized: I am not talking about the islamophobic or other religions phobics attemps, I am talking about the organized warrying made by the politicians (War in IRAQ, Afghanistan not to forget vietnam and so and so wich are in fact caused by greed and love for power. ) . Would you comapre casualties???

        Yes I agree with you it is much more complicated than that.

        But let me say it in an other way : imagine yourself in a small vilage: every one knows tha Mr SOANDSO is a ***. If you go to him ans say (you are a ***), you will go to jail and nobody in the village will be against that even if they think like you. , but if you just stated to him, eye ball to eye ball the fact that he did such and such bad thing without insults, you will be the champion of free speech.

        This speech of taxing the others (and only the others) of violence is in a way a preparation for more misguidance and more clashes and we know that wont help.

        But I appreciate your answer, thank you.

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