Amazon made headlines last week when it abruptly cut off service to Wikileaks, allegedly on the grounds that the site had violated Amazon’s terms of acceptable use. However, Amazon’s decision to terminate Wikileaks came less than 24 hours after Amazon received a phone call from Senate Homeland Security Committee staff (at the behest of Sen. Joe Lieberman) inquiring about the firm’s relationship with Wikileaks. According to a report in The Guardian, Amazon’s decision to terminate service to Wikileaks was a “reaction to heavy political pressure.”
That’s not all. Glenn Greenwald reported last week on Salon.com that another Internet company, Tableau Software, also decided to disable service to Wikileaks because of pressure from Joe Lieberman. Unlike Amazon, Tableau admitted that its decision was directly prompted by pressure from Lieberman. From Tableau’s statement:
Our decision to remove the data from our servers came in response to a public request by Senator Joe Lieberman, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, when he called for organizations hosting WikiLeaks to terminate their relationship with the website.
It’s difficult to see Joe Lieberman’s “public request” as anything but a thinly-veiled threat. Case in point: In addition to his staffers’ phone calls, Lieberman went on MSNBC last week, stating bluntly, “we’ve got to put pressure on any companies … which provide access to the Internet to Wikileaks.”
As Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Lieberman is in a uniquely powerful position to push for legislation that might harm private firms like Amazon. He can also hold Congressional hearings, which frequently turn into public spectacles and garner massive media coverage. A company’s CEO enduring a congressional grilling on Capitol Hill can significantly impact that firm’s public image — and, in some cases, its stock price as well. While no individual Senator has the power to enact laws, promulgate rules, or enforce regulations, a single crusading politician can arguably cause cognizable harm to any U.S. company that pushes back against “requests” to suppress unfavorable content.
How does this implicate the First Amendment? As EFF’s Rainey Reitman and Marcia Hofmann pointed out on the DeepLinks blog, “The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression against government encroachment — but that doesn’t help if the censorship doesn’t come from the government.”