The public-relations department at Amazon.com received an unusual phone call Tuesday night from staffers for a U.S. senator. "Are there plans to take the site down?" the staff suggestively asked, leaving the message with an employee of the Seattle-based e-commerce company.
The site in question was WikiLeaks.org—home to the 251,287 leaked U.S. diplomatic cables causing an international nightmare for the State Department and its allies. The files, it turned out, were being hosted by Amazon Web Services, meaning the cables' digital dissemination was happening right here on U.S. soil—directly under the noses of U.S. authorities.
The following morning, Amazon informed Sen. Joe Lieberman's office it was no longer hosting the organization's website. The company says it took that step because WikiLeaks had violated its terms of service agreement, rather than as a response to the government's concerns. "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," Amazon said in a statement.
WikiLeaks fired back soon after, tweeting, "If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the First Amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books." Dan Gillmor of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship echoed that sentiment, suggesting Amazon's move displayed a "lack of spine."
As a result of Amazon's actions, WikiLeaks is not just facing possible federal prosecution, attacks from hackers, and the sincere hatred of American diplomats everywhere. It's now a political hot potato in the world of Web server hosts.
The heat is intensifying. In the past 24 hours, two U.S.-based companies with WikiLeaks ties had dropped the organization. Tableau, a data-visualization company based in Seattle hosting charts and graphs depicting the diplomatic cables, cited "a public request by Senator Joe Lieberman." EveryDNS.net, a domain-name provider based in Manchester, New Hampshire, soon followed suit— terminating its free service to WikiLeaks because of denial-of-service attacks that "threaten[ed] the stability of the EveryDNS.net infrastructure." On Friday morning, the French government began looking for ways to kick WikiLeaks from the servers of French hosting provider OVH. "This situation is not acceptable," Industry Minister Eric Besson said. "France cannot host an Internet site that violates the secrecy of diplomatic relations and endangers people."
Complaints about content aren't uncommon down on the server farm. They're typically registered in the form of a court order or a search warrant. Most companies compare the complaint with their terms of service agreement: Is the content legal? Is it fraudulent? Is it operating "for any illegal purpose or in a way that violates the law"? Not all companies come to the same conclusions, of course—and not all of them say they're sure they would have done what Amazon did.
Dan Gillmor of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship said Amazon's move displayed a "lack of spine."
Christine Jones, general counsel for GoDaddy.com, said "our default position is to leave it up—that would be the starting point. Then we'd have to have a reason to remove it." The tough cases—Jones calls them "wobblers"—are those in which the offending content could be classified either way, "when there's some judgment involved, and that would be up to the individual provider."
• Stephen L. Carter: The Espionage Case Against Assange• Howard Kurtz: McCain Blames NYT for WikiLeaksAn authority at another popular Web-hosting company, who asked not to be named due to a fear of repercussions over the subject's sensitive nature, said Amazon's position was understandable—but couldn't say whether her company would have gone so far as to pull the site offline.
"Having controversial material on your hosting service can cause a lot of problems," she explained to The Daily Beast.
She said her company—which hosts "2 percent of the Internet," she maintains—could deactivate websites based on a number of terms of service violations, which include anything from fraud to pirated materials, copyright violations, and information used to "destroy others' intellectual property or information," or cause harm.
Both Web-hosting concerns said they'd likely comply in some fashion if a sitting U.S. senator registered a takedown request.
"If WikiLeaks were over here, and the government came to me and said, 'Can you please remove this content?' of course we would do it—if they served us with the proper court order," GoDaddy's Jones explained.
"I would say, depending on the request from Senator Lieberman, we would probably ask the website operator to remove the offending content, and give them some amount of time to remove it," she adds. "If they refuse, then we may disable the entire website."
Adds Jones: "I don't know the people who run WikiLeaks so I don't know their policy on that."
Jones has been there recently. Sen. Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican elected to succeed the late Teddy Kennedy, recently had his office register a takedown request. The senator was unhappy with websites hosting his infamous nude centerfold photograph.
Jones refused the request.
"That would typically be political speech, or parody," she explained, "and so, again, the default is to leave it up. We wouldn't get involved in it at all, there's really nothing there. If there's nothing illegal about it, we have no dog in that fight."
So should WikiLeaks worry that they might soon be homeless on the Interwebs? Not a chance, according to the company that took over hosting duties after Amazon shut the whistleblowing website down.
Jon Karlung is the CEO and chairman of Bahnhof, a Swedish Web hosting provider located near Stockholm that operates from a James Bond-style underground mountain bunker. As of Wednesday night, WikiLeaks had migrated its servers back to the company.
When reached by The Daily Beast, Karlung was playing defense for his controversial client, making it clear he had no plans to deny hosting services to WikiLeaks—despite Lieberman's request that foreign companies cut ties.
"The service is provided in Sweden—where Swedish law applies," Karlung wrote. "We are not subject to American law, Chinese laws or Iranian laws either, for that matter. WikiLeaks is just a normal business client. We do not treat them any different than any other client."
Has the United States government reached out to ask you to deny hosting for WikiLeaks? "No."
Would you revoke hosting capabilities if so? "Of course not."
If it turns out that WikiLeaks is doing something illegal—according to Swedish laws? "We will address the client with a request to remove that material."
But such a question must first come from the proper Swedish legal authorities, he says, and "There has been no such request."
Brian Ries is tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.