TDIF: Expression (Part 2: Institutional)

The past several posts here have looked at the recently released Delcaration of Internet Freedom (rundown here) and threats that it faces. In the last post we looked at how the Expression principle is constantly being objected to in the United States on morality grounds. Today we’ll look at an even greater threat to expression on the internet which is the financial and institutional forces that look to censor speech online. These forces mainly come from governments and corporations. Both forces are clearly intertwined, as money and power often go hand in hand, but we’ll distinguish between the two here because each of their manifestations pose seperate challenges.

Institutional Forces (i.e. Governments)

When governments like China ban opposition political speech in their country online under the guise that it would cause instability in the country it is a prime example of institutional forces looking to censor speech online. The Electronic Frontier foundation has a great series on their Deeplinks Blog called This Week in Internet Censorshipthat covers the repressive actions that foreign governments take online to suppress speech. I would highly recommend checking out This Week In Internet Censorship just to get a flavor of the kind of horrific things being done weekly by governments across the world. While the United States is not nearly as bad in this regard as many other nations, it is also not without it’s own faults. Lets take a look at some of the more famous examples below


JotForm is a service that allows users to create online forms, a lot like Survery Monkey. With 700,000 users and over 2 million forms created, JotForm was quite successful when, without prior notice, and without a court order, the Secret Service took JotForm offline by seizing When contacted by JotForm’s owner the Secret Service said it would take them a week just to get back to him. In the end the domain was finally returned but not after any reason was given for the seizure. The investigation is ongoing and while the Secret Service still has no comment, it is difficult to guess what the rational for taking down 2 milllion online forms would be. (read the Ars Techica rundown here) is web hosting type company where anyone can sign up and get a subdomain (eg Mooo was hosting over 84,000 such subdomains for individuals, small businesses and other organizations when ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) came in and, like the JotForm case, siezed the domain name (as part of Operation Protect Our Children) bringing down all 84,000 websites. To make matters worse all of these website, when visited, showed visitors that the site they were visiting was shut down due to child pornography (apparently 10 of the 84,000 sites had some illegal pornographic content). In the end was returned to the owner but of course not after the damage had been done to the businesses that had a child porn indictment plastered across their front pages (read coverage of this story from TechDirt and Torrent Freak).


Wikileaks of course a site that facilitaes the release of leaked documents and other material. Wikileaks has released thousands of documents blowing the whistle on countless legitnate scandals and secret plots. While whistleblowers and jounralists in the United States have long enjoyed free speech protections that have benifited Americans by exposing misbavior by governments and corporations over and over again, the US Government’s response to Wikileaks was truly unprecedented. In 2010 Wikileaks released numerous pieces of classified material. One such piece was a video of a 2007 Baghdad airstrike that showed civilians being shot at by a United States Army helicopter. Later in 2010 Wikileaks released a large set of cables sent between various international governments. These documents in particular are seen by some to be part of what sparked the Arab Spring. The release of theses leaked cables made the United States so upset that they took several drastic actions. Despite the fact that the United States government denounces cyber attacks as an act of war a DDos attack, that many believe was carried out by the United States, immediately took the Wikileaks site offline. After that the US government worked behind the scenes along with public statements by Senator Lieberman to pressure Amazon to stop hosting the Wikileaks website, with no court involvement and against contractual obligations by Amazon (Guardian take here). Then payment processors Visa, Master Card, PayPal and others refused to process all donations to Wikileaks, a blockade that the UN Human Rights Commisioner condemned. Despite hard proof of government involvement, pressure from the United States was clearly the reason for the blockade (read all about the payment blockade here). Meanwhile members of Congress demonized Jullian Assange, owner of Wikileaks, in the most dangerous ways. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnaell called Julian ASsange a “high tech terrorist”. Congressman King said “I’m also calling on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to declare Wikileaks a foreign terrorist organization”. Senator Feinstein and Senator Kit Bond called for Julian Assange to be prosocuted under the Espionage Act, which holds the death penalty as a punishment. The leaker of these specific documents Bradley Manning was quickly aprehended and placed in solitary confinement. His subsequent treatment has been called everything from a Violation of the 8th Amendment (video) to torture (read more about solitary confinement here and here (video)). The horrendous response to Wikileaks has a chilling effect on free speech across the internet especially as the vicious response comes from a goverment that many people see as a beacon of freedom. These actions  make it clear that the United States has left the traditional protections of whistle-blowers and journalists to apply only to old media newspaper institutions and view these same actions as repressible when they happen online.

Google Content Removal

Google recently released its Transparency Report for the second half of 2011. This report details the different requests it received to have cotent taken off of it’s site including, Google Search Results, YouTube videos, Blogpost blogs, Adword advertisements etc. The report shows that in the second six months of 2011 the US government agencies requested 6,192 items to be removed. That’s three times more than they asked for in all of 2010 and twice as many as 2nd place Germany requested in the same timeframe. Even more stricking is that Google only deemed 42% of those requests to be valid, and thus remove the requested content. Some other little tidbits about the requests… One request contained 218 instances of defamation only 25% were valid. At the behest of the US, Google removed 1,731 YouTube videos for “Privacy & Security” reasons. Google also took down 14 videos that the US thought was too violent (presumably showing gruesome US military actions). Ars Technica has a good article about all of this here. The United States also tops Twitter’s Takedown Report


The examples above all show how the United States government intervenes online to prevent free speech. Note that none of these examples are examples of industry groups pressuring the government to intervene, something that is equally harmful and even more commomplace and something that I’ll discuss in the the second half this post (I had to break up this post into two posts because it was so long). Updated: One man’s missions to destroy the cyberlocker idustry because of ‘child porn’. Also Court rules firm must process payments to WikiLeaks

Updated: One man’s mission to destroy the cyberlocker industry because of ‘child porn’. Also court rules firm must process payments to WikiLeaks