Home Amazon Web Services, WikiLeaks and the Elephant in the Room

Amazon Web Services, WikiLeaks and the Elephant in the Room

Yesterday Amazon Web Services sent out a promotional email titled “Amazon Web Services Year in Review.” Understandably, the email didn’t mention one of the biggest AWS stories of the year: the company’s decision to remove the WikiLeaks website from its servers.

Dave Winer noticed something else of note in the email: a paragraph about how the U.S. Federal Government is one of AWS’s customers, with over 20 federal agencies taking advantage of the company’s services. And, according to the announcement, that number is growing. Winer suggests this is the reason that Amazon.com closed WikiLeaks’ account. “It makes perfect sense that the US government is a big customer of Amazon’s web services. It also makes perfect sense that Amazon wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that business,” Winer wrote. “There might not have even been a phone call, it might not have been necessary.”

Winer also noted that after the U.S. Army announced it would be purchasing iPhone or Android devices for all its troops, Apple dropped a WikiLeaks app from the App Store.

Winer’s explanation is purely speculative, and some might call it a conspiracy theory. But it points to a big issue for free speech in the cloud: what happens if one, smaller customer criticizes a bigger customer? In the Web 1.0 era, if you got kicked off a Web host you just found another. Today, the number of providers like AWS are small. As AWS’s promotion material points out, cloud computing gives smaller outfits the ability to take advantage of high-performance computing.

Put WikiLeaks aside for a moment. What happens if a small journalistic outfit starts using a cloud provider to do some serious data journalism, but in the process offends one of its hosts’ large customers. Maybe they’re right-wing journalists criticizing the Obama administration or maybe it’s a group of liberal muckrakers uncovering hidden truths about a major financial institution. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they have access to the resources they need to learn what they need to learn and publish what they need to publish.

And it’s not just a free speech issue: freedom of commerce could be in jeopardy as well. What happens if a small company wants to compete with Netflix? Will AWS find a “terms of service” violation to slap it with? Considering the rumors that Amazon.com is considering competing with Netflix itself, this could become a problem quickly.

I’ve focused on AWS in this article, but these concerns apply to any provider. Practically all of the “2011 cloud computing predictions” type articles I’ve read this year mention consolidation as a major trend for 2011. If everyone’s right, we’ll likely see fewer Infrastructure-as-a-Service companies in the next few years. Are data centers becoming the new “means of production”?

Like net neutrality, it’s a problem that seems difficult to solve without legislation. But I’m all ears: how else could this issue be solved, or is it really an issue at all?

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