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: http://aws.amazon.com/message/65348/ 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.

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Why WikiLeaks is important

The WikiLeaks intelligence documents have started appearing in the papers. There’s no earth-shattering revelation, yet this disclosure to the public is extremely important because it brings to light our two alternative conceptions of democracy. In the classic idea of democracy, the one you learn at school and the one reflected in the structure of electoral institutions, participatory democracy is the ideal and representation is merely a device to make democracy practical at large scale. In classic democracy, the public is at all times the source of authority and arbiter of decisions. Openness is essential, and the role of the media is to keep the representatives in line with the wishes of the public. In classic democracy there is no question that the information recently released by WikiLeaks should be routinely open. While that might make the work of government at times inconvenient, this type of democracy is the safest and least oppressive form of government we have so far discovered.

The alternative view of democracy, now prevalent de facto, is the democracy of the management firm. The state is governed like a large public firm. Political parties are management consultancies bidding for contracts to run the firm for a number of years. Elections are the general meeting, where citizens vote one share but large investors (businesses) vote according to their share of the economy. The role of the media, if it’s not the firm’s own newsletter, is to carry advertising. In this kind of democracy, the management firm, once hired, is allowed and expected to work behind closed doors. Their performance is judged only by aggregates, such as economic growth. Citizens are certainly not routinely informed, and have no say unless some investor lobby (large business interest) feels that the management performs poorly and calls for an early general meeting. If that is the democracy we have, WikiLeaks is wholly irresponsible and out of place.

Which type of democracy do you think we should have?