Legal procedure and business ethics aren’t too much to expect from Amazon

Supplement to my last post, and following up on the Amazon boycott due to Amazon Web Services’ breach of contract with WikiLeaks at the mere behest of Joe Lieberman et al., and the mendacious, libelous AWS release excusing themselves:

I have read many people say they excuse “understand” Amazon’s lack of backbone, in that Amazon is a corporation with shareholders, and a business, and made a business decision. I too, “understand” this, but I am not willing to excuse the actions of unnecessary complicity, and attitudes of complicity, simply because of employment at a corporation instead of a government. Corporations should not get a pass on ethics simply because we know that as organizations, they tend to make malleable decisions based on money instead of principles. People still work there, and should be held to a reasonable standard of business ethics.

This boycott is really not about asking Amazon to go to the mat to defend free speech—and it’s true that this cause is not their purpose as a for-profit organization. This boycott is about their customers expecting them to adhere to the legal procedure for adjudicating free speech in America. Responsibility to shareholders did not require Amazon to depart from the first Amendment and due process; if anything, that responsibility should induce them to adhere to the proper legal procedure of courts, and to adhere to contractual responsibility to their hosted customer.

Amazon doesn’t need to cave in immediately just because Joe Lieberman’s staffers or whoever else makes a personal inquiry that has no force of law. That’s encouraging personal abuse of power by officials, and it sets a terrible precedent for all kinds of cases of free speech on the web, especially because Amazon is a multi-billion-dollar multinational corporation, and a potentially influential example among web hosts. If every time some official or officer wants a site taken down without judicial review, they can, the internet will effectively be controlled without a law passed. (I am told this has been happening a lot in the UK; the police simply request a host remove a site based on political speech, and it is shut down, with no court involved.)

I wouldn’t remotely blame Amazon for giving in to legal paperwork. I don’t think anyone with any sense of business would. But if censors want to shut down your customer that is paying you to host them, make the censors get a court order. Make them have to go to a judge or grand jury who may say there’s enough merit for a case. And in fact, since there is a legal precedent protecting WikiLeaks’ role as publisher here (the Daniel Ellsberg/Pentagon Papers case before the Supreme Court of the US, which the New York Times won), it’s not clear that this would have happened. I think that’s probably why such a shady behind-the-scenes act happened instead.

In this case also, Amazon lied unnecessarily in their release excusing themselves, which was libelous and toadying, repeating a stock smear against WikiLeaks (endangerment), their own hosting customer. That just made it worse. I was waiting to see what Amazon would say or do to account for themselves, but their response sealed it for me.

Amazon wants to be judged as acting willfully, not out of cowardice. Fine. Amazon are not helpless “victims” of government pressure, as some of the reflexively pro-business anti-boycott libertarians (who neglect the corporations in corporatism) have assumed, until that pressure is applied beyond what a corporate giant can resist, and we don’t know that it was. In fact, we have no reason to think so, whereas we know that legal procedure or requirements had not become involved—just the opinion of some national security apparatchiks and the implied threats of a senator with a Napoleon complex.

The people at Amazon’s corporate headquarters are responsible for their actions and attitudes, and making sure those comply to ethical standards that customers and human beings who care about free speech and/or rule of law wish them to have. If they throw those expectations aside, their customers are perfectly justified in shopping elsewhere, and telling Amazon why.

Finally: I am gratified to see that WikiLeaks has now returned like Lazarus, thanks to a Swiss address and hosting. Would that it were possible for the American corporations and government to sustain their own laws designed to sustain the tradition of free speech.

One response to “Legal procedure and business ethics aren’t too much to expect from Amazon

  1. Pingback: A Libertarian Divide – Lessons from the Amazon boycott | Wisdom Dancer

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