Do private corporations have an ethical obligation to allow Wikileaks to use their services? MasterCard, Visa and PayPal stopped processing Wikileaks donations. Amazon kicked the site off its server. Twitter stopped its tweets; Facebook stopped its interfacing.
Columbia University Professor Tim Wu rhetorically asked them:
“Since when are you in the business of deciding who is and who isn’t a good civil disobedience movement?”
Before I address the Professor’s question, let’s make some distinctions. Private companies should not withhold their services based on disagreement with a customer’s political ideas, opinions, or legal activities. This isn’t government censorship; it is just wrong. Every citizen should have equal access to the Internet, advertising, and credit services if they meet legitimate criteria for service. Efforts to ban particular sentiments of social networking sites are per se offensive to the free expressions and circulation of ideas.
The Wikileaks material is something else: it is the intentional facilitation of the dissemination of illegally-released information intended to embarrass and harm the United States of America. Any corporation that voluntarily assists in such activity is aiding conduct that may be illegal, may be unethical, and may harm others, not to mention the nation itself. By no means is a private corporation obligated to do that…any of it.
May a corporation decide that it wants to facilitate Wikileaks? Certainly, if it is secure in its conviction that this is the right thing to do, either because it agrees with the rationale behind the leaks, because it believes that the activity is legal, or doesn’t think private companies should second guess or veto the intentions of its customers. However, a company that believes what Julian Assange is doing is wrong, and that it has an ethical and patriotic duty not to assist him, is not breaching any duty by ending its relationship with Wikileaks.
Whatever Wikileaks’ conduct may be, it does not qualify as civil disobedience. As a non-citizen, Assange is not subject to U.S. laws and has no standing to violate them. He also does not meet the requirement of civil disobedience of openly violating unjust laws and submitting himself for punishment. He has actively avoided accountability for his actions, and his Wikileaks henchmen have perpetrated crimes against the websites of organizations that oppose him. When can businesses decide what isn’t a good civil disobedience movement, Professor Wu? The answer is “When the activity isn’t civil disobedience, and is perpetrated by arrogant, self-glorifying, reckless foreign thugs who won’t accept the hard part of defying the law: standing up against it in court.”
Private companies aren’t involved in censorship, because this is information that there is no legal right to release: the material is out only because dties and laws have been breached. A company that wants to continue be an ally to Wikileaks can do so, and can accept the consequences: bad publicity, alienated customers, possible legal action. A company that wants no part of Assange’s power trip, however, has violated no principles of ethics by determining that whatever it can do to mitigate the damage, it will.
I just know which company I will respect.