Cloud computing and democracy: Amazon and WikiLeaks

This week’s Observer column.

As Markus Kuhn, a computer security researcher at the Cambridge Computer Lab, pointed out to me, any work “prepared by an officer or employee of the US government as part of that person’s official duties” is not entitled to domestic copyright protection under US law. So, in the US at least, the leaked cables are not protected by copyright and it doesn’t matter whether WikiLeaks owns the rights or not.

But, in a way, that’s the least worrying aspect of Amazon’s behaviour. More troubling is what its actions portend for democracy. Rebecca MacKinnon, a scholar who has written incisively about China’s efforts to censor the net, wrote a sobering essay about this last week. “A substantial, if not critical amount of our political discourse,” she points out, “has moved into the digital realm. This realm is largely made up of virtual spaces that are created, owned and operated by the private sector.”

As far as the law of contract is concerned, Amazon can do what it likes. But this isn’t just about contracts any more. “While Amazon was within its legal rights,” MacKinnon warns, “the company has nonetheless sent a clear signal to its users: if you engage in controversial speech that some individual members of the US government don’t likeā€¦ Amazon is going to dump you at the first sign of trouble.”

Yep. For years people have extolled cloud computing as the way of the future. The lesson of the last week is simple: be careful what you wish for.

Dan Gillmor has a good piece about this over on Excerpt:

That’s Strike 1 to our faith in the Internet. We are all, to one degree or another, forced to rely on the good will of larger enterprises that host and serve the media we create online. So when a company as big as Amazon — and it’s huge in the Web services arena — yanks down content this way, it is demonstrating that we cannot fully trust it with our content, either. And if Amazon, a powerful enterprise, can be bullied, which one can’t?