>"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.