A Leak In The Leak
December 4, 2010 8:36 AM   Subscribe

Why are Amazon/PayPal trying to kill off wikileaks? I figured it was to score brownie points with the govt but surely there's a more logical explanation. Is Amazon afraid of DDOS's? Is PayPal afraid of fraud? Enlighten me hive mind.
posted by analogue to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
One poster's theory over on blue
posted by bizzyb at 8:46 AM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

As an eBay employee, I can say from experience that PayPal tends to err on the side of freezing accounts if there's any doubt about the legitimacy of the transactions being conducted. You will not have to search far to find people on the Internet who have complained about this. I have not yet seen any reports that their action was prompted a leaning-on by the Office of Homeland Security.

As for Amazon, Joe Lieberman showed up and cracked his knuckles and Amazon quickly decided that it was in their business interests to avoid this particular controversy. [And unless the fledgling calls for a boycott of them over this cowardice becomes far larger than I ever expect it to, it is difficult to dispute their reasoning.] That calculus doesn't even require the government trying to take them offline. Just that immeasurably cynical and corrupt windbag going before the TV cameras - his favorite activity - to tell an ignorant and supine nation that Amazon.com is undermining the government's ability to keep them safe from death at the hands of slavering Muslim extremists who hate us for our freedoms.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:53 AM on December 4, 2010 [6 favorites]

So you're saying that the PayPal and Amazon actions were done for different reasons? I mean, ok.. PayPal froze the account because of suspicious transactions (I still don't get how a site like Wikileaks which obviously receives large sums of cash could suddenly experience a host of transactions.

As for Amazon, knowing Bezos I just can't see him caving in to the govt so quickly. I mean, what's the govt gonna go after Amazon for? Online book store monopoly? Amazon is *the* leader for online shopping, the feds wouldn't hurt them because they'd be hurting the economy. There must be an underlying cause...
posted by analogue at 9:00 AM on December 4, 2010

They're not trying to "kill it off." They're trying to protect their own business from lawsuits, federal investigations, and hackers. Hosting these things is a legal nightmare. Imagine, once all the investigations are underway, and Amazon is forced to turn over all of their traffic logs and whatnot related to them. Amazon and PayPal are businesses whose primary interest is to make a profit (I do not say this disparagingly but as an empirical fact). Why jeopardize your business over someone else's ideological campaign?
posted by proj at 9:00 AM on December 4, 2010 [5 favorites]

bizzyb: thank you for the pointer. I read that comment and I was initially inclined to agree, but why would Amazon cave in? What do they have to lose? I mean EC2 is pretty much all greenfield.
posted by analogue at 9:02 AM on December 4, 2010

proj: but isn't that what EC2 is all about? just hosting arbitrary VM's.. Amazon had bandwith to spare and the EC2 IP's don't mess with Amazon.com, do they?
posted by analogue at 9:03 AM on December 4, 2010

As Joe Beese said, everyone is just erring on the side of caution. Amazon doesn't want to spend the money hiring IT experts and lawyers to demonstrate that, no, really, they aren't "involved" with WikiLeaks. It's just a precautionary strategy. You also may want to consider posting less in this already very-chatfiltery question.
posted by proj at 9:05 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

So you're saying that the PayPal and Amazon actions were done for different reasons?

So far as a cursory Google search just now can tell me, the only entity claiming that PayPal was subjected to government pressure is WikiLeaks itself.

Compare this with what is known about Amazon:

"Sen. Lieberman hopes that the Amazon case will send the message to other companies that might host Wikileaks that it would be irresponsible to host the site," she said.

Let us say that the message was sent.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:09 AM on December 4, 2010

Businesses are concerned about their reputations. A company that gets a reputation for being involved in something nasty can be harmed by it for decades. Amazon doesn't want to be even peripherally involved in what Wikileaks is doing, because there are a lot of members of the public who think that what Wikileaks is doing is bad, negative, disgusting, harmful... and Amazon doesn't want to get any of that on Amazon's reputation.

It's not that they're tryng to kill Wikileaks. Amazon is just trying to make sure that nothing that Amazon owns or does has any connection to what Wikileaks is doing, in the eyes of the public.

Your question, and your comments, suggest that you think what Wikileaks is doing is wonderful. You should be aware that the majority of Americans don't share your opinion.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:11 AM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Just as a practical matter, WikiLeaks has repeatedly been the victim of DDoS attacks which are likely to affect Amazon's other hosting customers as well. Amazon had a choice between spending enormous sums on more bandwidth to absorb DDoS attacks, losing some of its reputation as an ultra-reliable hosting provider, or booting WikiLeaks off their network. They chose the least expensive alternative.
posted by miyabo at 9:12 AM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

proj: Sorry for posting so much, but I really want to know the rational behind these actions..
posted by analogue at 9:12 AM on December 4, 2010

There are longer-term business implications to consider for Amazon. As much as I find the ability of a single U.S. senator to single-handedly censor content, I do have some sympathy for their predicament. Say they had decided to take a stand on free speech grounds— any future mergers/business acquisitions could well attract greater scrutiny from the DoJ from electorally vulnerable Congresspeople/Senators fearful of being tarred and feathered for helping 'the enemy'. If you think this sounds alarmist, consider the furore surrounding the attempted Dubai Ports World sale on the basis of ‘OH NOES T3H FOREIGNERS, THEY WILL HAS OUR BOATS’.
posted by jaffacakerhubarb at 9:15 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

That Amazon is not interested in participating in a divisive controversy is entirely consistent with their corporate behavior.

Amazon has never shown an interest in any broader ideals that don't dovetail with their bottom line. They are extremely pragmatic, a fact reflected in business decisions and ingrained in their corporate culture. I suspect a cost/benefit analysis among upper executives decided that it was better to go along with the government on this one, driven by the fear of being contaminated by the same bad publicity Wikileaks enjoys ("Zomg! Amazon endangers US lives abroad!!!").

I don't know as much about eBay, but I would guess it's similar. Neither is "trying to kill Wikileaks"; they just aren't going to fight to save them.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:42 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

the feds wouldn't hurt them because they'd be hurting the economy.

This is a rational view. It is not what drives political decisions.

In 2002, California, which accounts for about 1/10th of the US's economic output, was being gouged by electricity providers who had figured out how to manipulate the market for electricity in California by selectively shutting down power plants for 'maintenance.' These coordinated events allowed providers to charge ruinous amounts of money for electricity, and caused California to experience wide-spread blackouts and brownouts.

The Federal government (at the time, Republican) chose not to intervene and correct the situation.

Doing so would have made obvious economic sense to the nation, but would not have strengthened the in-power party's political or donor base, the latter which included parties like Enron who were benefitting from the manipulated prices.

posted by zippy at 9:51 AM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Regardless of whether I support WikiLeaks or not, I still think hosting companies and payment processing companies should honor their contracts and SLA's.

In both cases, the companies have clearly shown that WikiLeaks was in violation of their agreements...

Amazon: 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.

We’ve been running AWS for over four years and have hundreds of thousands of customers storing all kinds of data on AWS. Some of this data is controversial, and that’s perfectly fine. But, when companies or people go about securing and storing large quantities of data that isn’t rightfully theirs, and publishing this data without ensuring it won’t injure others, it’s a violation of our terms of service, and folks need to go operate elsewhere.

PayPal: "PayPal has permanently restricted the account used by WikiLeaks due to a violation of the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy, which states that our payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity. We've notified the account holder of this action."
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:52 AM on December 4, 2010 [7 favorites]

The government is the biggest customer for many companies, this puts them in a very bad position with little choice.
posted by meepmeow at 10:15 AM on December 4, 2010

[A few comments removed. This is not great framing for a question in the first place, but if we're gonna let it be it really needs to not turn into a chat session, analogue.]
posted by cortex at 10:31 AM on December 4, 2010

For what it's worth, as a product of the US Government, the documents WikiLeaks is releasing are by definition not under copyright. And the DDoS excuse is just an excuse. Large networks like Amazon (and their upstreams) have a large amount of experience in mitigating the effects of DoS attacks. That excuse simply doesn't fly with me. Also, their bit about WikiLeaks publishing "250,000" documents in this latest dump is inaccurate.

You'd think that if they were going to set out to screw someone like that, they'd at least be accurate in their criticisms rather than parroting Lieberman's talking points.

So it really had to be about not wanting to be associated with WikiLeaks in Amazon's case. Paypal are just a bunch of shits who freeze accounts at a whim anyway, so that bit doesn't surprise me in the least.
posted by wierdo at 10:48 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

The simple speculative answer is neither Amazon nor PayPal want the controversy. Factually, here's what I know. Amazon's official reason is terms of service, specifically copyright and putting others at risk. EveryDNS said it couldn't handle the DDOS load. Tableau said it dropped Wikileaks "in response to a public request by Senator Joe Lieberman ... when he called for organizations hosting WikiLeaks to terminate their relationship with the website".

It's worth noting that the BitTorrent networks have not dropped WikiLeaks. Neither has the Guardian, nor the New York Times, nor any of the other news outlets republishing the revelations coming from the document release. No one rational thinks they can "kill off WikiLeaks", it's more a matter of public posturing.
posted by Nelson at 1:22 PM on December 4, 2010

Due to the national and international nature of Amazon's business, they need to be on good terms with the federal, (and many international) governments. Regardless of the legality or morality of wikileaks, they need to look like they are the sort of company that operates in complete harmony with whatever government they are overseen by.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:18 PM on December 4, 2010

Wikileaks acted illegally. If you view it like that, your question becomes "Why are companies like Amazon and Paypal who abide by the law refusing to cooperate with an organisation which is breaking the law?"
posted by dougrayrankin at 4:36 PM on December 4, 2010

Amazon famously gives nothing to charities, local interests, or anything else that doesn't impact the bottom line, so in that sense it doesn't surprise me that they wouldn't stick out their necks for this sort of issue.

That said, I think it's important to consider that AWS is a side business for them. Imagine that you develop some technology internally, figure you can make a few bucks by spinning it off into its own service, then all of a sudden someone's use of it is causing all sorts of controversy and threatening to cast a shadow over your real bread and butter. (And have you seen how much business Amazon is doing these days?) I think you'd have to be pretty dedicated to some principle -- and to be honest, I'm not even sure what principle that would be -- to pay the cost of this particular fight.
posted by bjrubble at 5:59 PM on December 4, 2010

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