"Online Speech is Only as Strong as the Weakest Intermediary," the Electronic Frontier Foundation reminded us earlier this month when Amazon abruptly evicted WikiLeaks from its servers. Corporate control over speech is nothing new. Authors and journalists in the pre-digital age were dependent on publishers willing to disseminate their work -- without publishing support, they were mere street corner pamphleteers. As free speech advocates might have said a quarter-century ago, "Offline Speech is Only as Strong as the Weakest Intermediary;" and, in fact, media critics have been writing about the dangers of marketplace censorship and media conglomeration for years. Still, recent demonstrations of corporate power over WikiLeaks seemed to resonate with the force of revelation, mocking any lingering illusions of the Internet as a frontier free from corporate as well as state control.
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Yes, it's true that the Internet potentially offers significantly larger audiences to electronic pamphleteers than they'd ever find on any street corner, even in Times Square; and for better and worse, a few break through, thanks to their demagoguery or thoughtfulness, marketing acumen or luck. But the Internet is an ocean, and without a berth on a corporate or corporate sponsored ship, most people will quickly sink, or swim unnoticed. And, while the street is a public place in which the government's powers of eviction are limited by First Amendment rights, the Internet has always been (pardon the metaphor shift) a gated community. If virtually anyone can enter, the right to remain and speak your mind is generally subject to corporate control, as the WikiLeaks fracas has shown.
The battles sparked by WikiLeaks are also reminders of another historic limit on free speech: Large corporations are apt to partner with the government in blocking allegedly subversive or otherwise anti-social speech -- remember all the actors and screenwriters blacklisted or threatened with blacklisting by major studios during the McCarthy era? Colleges and universities also collaborated in government witch hunts, (as Ellen Schrecker demonstrated in No Ivory Tower). Given this history and the state of siege in which America operates today, no one should be surprised if a phone call from Joe Lieberman persuades Amazon to pull the plug on WikiLeaks.
I'm not dismissing concerns about the threat that corporate control and homogenization of speech poses to the flow of information and dissent. Having worked as a freelance writer for some 30 years, I am only too keenly aware of marketplace censorship. But it's a fact of life, and First Amendment editorial freedoms, which the private press enjoys. Besides, while some people protest the shut down of WikiLeaks, or the shut out of progressive voices from large corporate media, others protest the failure of social media sites to censor allegedly abusive speech or the prevalence of online pornography. (Even the ACLU has retreated from challenging vague and overbroad anti-pornography legislation.) There is no significant political constituency for free speech on the Internet. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is right: "Online Speech is Only as Strong as the Weakest Intermediary." But we the people, not private corporations, are the weakest links in the chain.
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