In her CNN commentary, Rebecca MacKinnon argues that the future of freedom in the internet age depends on holding companies that now act as arbiters of the public discourse accountable to the public interest. I’d argue that in an age of broadened media discourse and citizen journalism it might be useful to distinguish which ones have this responsibility and at what level.
I had the opportunity and pleasure to work with MacKinnon at the Open Society Institute when I was dealing with these issues of media censorship as Director of its Internet Program and then as CTO of its Information program. In this instance I must point to what I feel are a few flaws in her argument using Amazon caving into pressure to pull WikiLeaks inhttp://www.internautconsulting.com/wp-admin/edit.php the larger context of our First Amendment rights being threatened in the US by online corporate control.
As her founding status in Global Voices Online and the Global Network Initiative indicate, MacKinnon has been at the forefront of the citizen journalism movement. This movement presumes, I think correctly, that the ability to participate in journalism has been democratized. The Internet has created more, not fewer spaces and opportunities to participate. Anyone can take part and in a variety of ways — in this case even a private company that hawks books and electronics as its core business, with a hosting business on the side.
It’s precisely because news dissemination is no longer the monopoly of traditional newspapers, radio and television that that Amazon situation should not be considered as the sky falling. Amazon made a decision to drop certain content it hosts during the Christmas rush to limit the bad press of being perceived as a national security risk in its own country. Presumably, it simply didn’t help its large screen TV sales… Today however, there are a variety of other citizen journalist sources, corporate and private, and about a gazillion other hosters online that can pick up the gauntlet without incurring the same legal risks Amazon decided it would not take — And any American with Internet access and the will can find them. To underscore this, in the comments section on MacKinnon’s commentary on CNN a commenter freely offered that while the WikiLeaks domain may have been killed it still had an active IP address that he provided. Placing that IP in my browser transferred me to yet another IP, and via the magic of the Internet, to the WikiLeaks site.
As MacKinnon correctly points out, “Speech within the kingdom of Amazonia is not protected in the same way that speech is constitutionally protected in America’s public spaces.” She also points out that the new virtual realm “is largely made up of virtual spaces that are created, owned and operated by the private sector” — maybe largely, but certainly not completely. The fact that public spaces continue to exist on a growing Internet is a net addition to sharing information that did not previously exist in the pre-Internet era when corporate monopolies largely controlled news dissemination.
MacKinnon has decided to draw a line in the sand about a company’s self-censoring a form of free speech that is near and dear to her heart. I haven’t heard her commenting as vociferously on the sexual content (also classified as free expression in our country) that these same companies regularly self-censor as part of their user agreements — and which could at least be argued to be less life or career threatening on a global scale than WikiLeaks data might turn out to be.
MacKinnon points a number of times to the Internet age responsibilities of “companies that are now the arbiters of public discourse” – but as opposed to what? The responsibilities of the pre-internet age media outlets that used to control the public discourse?
As the citizen journalist movement has broadened the discourse to include new players, I’d argue that we must be realistically aware of their limitations related to the public interest even as they participate in the public discourse. Anyone that has read an Assange interview or one about him could reasonably question his balance of public interest versus self-interest. Similarly, most companies exist to make a profit. The extent of their public interest is defined by their accountability to 1) their shareholders, 2) the demands of their customers and 3) regulation which define the legality of their operations. Amazon made a legitimate business and legal decision weighing the number of customers who would stop buying Wii’s because it censored certain speech versus those who would not purchase because it was labeled a threat to their national security. Assange made a similar calculation about his reputation in publishing the leaked and potentially illegal data.
Ironically, a controversial case like WikiLeaks truly showcases the value-add of traditional media companies that do exist to serve the public interest. Unlike the larger group of participants that now engage in citizen journalism around the world, an entity like the New York Times has the investigative, analytical and legal wherewithal to put 250,000 raw emails into context for its readership and vociferously defend its constitutional right to publish them. In pursuing Amazon the erstwhile Senator Lieberman went after a rather soft target. He didn’t presume to mix it up with the New York Times.
I noticed as well that MacKinnon chose a traditional media outlet, CNN, to get her opinion out to a broad audience as did WikiLeaks in choosing traditional media outlets to share its data. So maybe this discourse is less about the new public interest responsibilities of citizen journalist participants both public and private, and more about valuing and protecting the institutions that have traditionally existed to serve those interests. Traditional media outlets do have an important place in this new era of citizen journalism and it would be a shame to view them as archaic and obsolete precisely because their public interest credentials are so clearly defined. They still present powerful public forums to make one’s case.
Jonathan Peizer is the Principal of Internaut Consulting supporting foundations, nonprofits, governments and socially responsible private sector initiatives. He is the former CIO/CTO and Director of the Open Society Institute’s Global Internet Program.