Amazon Unplugs WikiLeaks After Government Pressure

Updated: Amazon (s amzn) has removed WikiLeaks’ website and related files from its servers, a move that appears to be a result of pressure from the U.S. government to not support the document-leaking organization. According to several news reports, Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) — the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee — asked the web company to remove its support for WikiLeaks, which moved some or all of its website and related files to Amazon’s EC2 cloud computing service after it suffered a “distributed denial of service” attack by unknown parties.

It’s not clear whether Senator Lieberman’s remarks were solely responsible for Amazon’s decision (the company did not respond to a request for comment), but the senator said in a statement the company had informed his staff Wednesday morning it was no longer hosting the website, and that he wished Amazon “had taken this action earlier.” The senator added that the release of classified diplomatic cables was illegal and outrageous, and the move had “compromised our national security and put lives at risk around the world.” Lieberman said he was going to ask Amazon about “the extent of its relationship with WikiLeaks,” and what the company planned to do in the future to prevent being used in a similar way to host illegal material.

On Wednesday afternoon, WikiLeaks posted a comment on Twitter saying its servers at Amazon had been “ousted,” and its money would now be spent “to employ people in Europe,” suggesting the website had been moved back to a hosting service outside the U.S. The organization, which has come under fire for hosting classified documents belonging to the American government — including videotapes related to attacks on civilians in Iraq — later posted a message saying “If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books.”

WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told Reuters (s tri) he was unaware of the latest situation on servers, but the organization had “ways and means to bypass any closure of our services.” A number of prominent members of the technology industry criticized the move by Amazon, including SlideShare CEO Rashmi Sinha — who called the decision “disappointing” in a Twitter message — and Dan Gillmor of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, who said the decision showed a “lack of spine.”

It’s worth noting that the U.S. State Department reached out to Twitter during the Iran protests last year, and asked the micro-blogging network to postpone some work that would have taken the network down, since it was such an important way of getting information out about the military action in that country. But when it comes to information about political matters involving the U.S. itself, the government seems more than happy to do whatever it takes to take certain things offline.

Update: Amazon has posted an explanation of its decision to remove WikiLeaks from its servers, saying it was not the result of government pressure, but because the organization breached the web company’s terms of service — since it did not own the rights to the information it hosted, and since the information could have led to people being harmed. The note says:

There have been reports that a government inquiry prompted us not to serve WikiLeaks any longer. That is inaccurate. There have also been reports that it was prompted by massive DDOS attacks. That too is inaccurate. There were indeed large-scale DDOS attacks, but they were successfully defended against.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) rents computer infrastructure on a self-service basis. AWS does not pre-screen its customers, but it does have terms of service that must be followed. WikiLeaks was not following them. There were several parts they were violating. For example, our terms of service state that “you represent and warrant that you own or otherwise control all of the rights to the content… that use of the content you supply does not violate this policy and will not cause injury to any person or entity.”

It’s clear that WikiLeaks doesn’t own or otherwise control all the rights to this classified content. Further, it is not credible that the extraordinary volume of 250,000 classified documents that WikiLeaks is publishing could have been carefully redacted in such a way as to ensure that they weren’t putting innocent people in jeopardy. Human rights organizations have in fact written to WikiLeaks asking them to exercise caution and not release the names or identities of human rights defenders who might be persecuted by their governments.

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