I’m sure you have all heard about Amazon’s decision to stop hosting the WikiLeaks website and given my interests (and career!) in web technologies this is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to over the past few days. My opinions have changed while I’ve been thinking about it so I’m going to tell the story of my reasoning as a backdrop to what I have (for now) concluded is the real underlying issue. This isn’t about WikiLeaks and it isn’t about Amazon but given the ongoing WikiLeaks debacle and Amazon’s enviable position in online retail and web services, these organisations and the relationship between them makes for a great case study in the deeper issue of the role of technology in our lives today.
My initial reaction
News of Amazon’s decision on WikiLeaks filtered down to me via Twitter the other day and like a lot of people my first reaction was one of outrage. People in many places, particularly in America (which is presumably Amazon’s primary source of revenue) seem to be feeling what can best be described as ‘pure venomous hatred’ and so Amazon, which up until recently was hosting the WikiLeaks website, has found itself in the awkward position of being tarred with that brush. They made a decision to stop hosting the WikiLeaks site and in doing so contributed to an important censorship debate – but if I climb down from my moral high horse, perhaps there’s nothing really wrong with this? That’s what large companies do and we shouldn’t be surprised by this decision to preserve their bottom line.
Those people who are appalled at what WikiLeaks are doing are an extremely vocal chunk of the population – they care a lot, and their feelings would have a large impact on Amazon’s business. On the other side, those of us that approve of the transparency and feel strongly on the freedom of speech issues tend by their very nature to be less certain that their beliefs should be enforced on others and, when it comes to protesting, are an altogether more apathetic bunch. Shouldn’t we show them that public opinion goes both ways? As consumers we have the power to vote with our wallets by boycotting Amazon.
Why this is important
In the modern age where the internet is the canonical communication medium, hosting companies hold in their hands the basic rights of a startling number of organisations and people. We sit in the relatively liberal west and gaze with concern upon China’s Great Firewall where the government decides what people should be able to see on the internet, but in some sense we find ourselves in a similar position here. Just like blocking all reference to tiananmen square in a country where “inciting to overthrow the government or the socialist system” is one of many things illegal on the internet, here we have large companies shutting down controversial websites to prevent a backlash of opinion against themselves because (if I may draw the parallel) by the laws of capitalism, “inciting consumers to boycott your business” is one of many illegal things on the internet. Rather than a government-controlled internet that must serve the ends of those in power, we appear to have a corporation-controlled internet that must serve the ends of the companies that keep it running smoothly.
It’s important because now the internet is so fundamental to our ability to communicate, companies that keep the internet running are the guardians of our freedom of speech.
In talking this over with people I know I’ve come across a few people who felt strongly one way or the other on purely idealistic grounds but weren’t sure (for example) exactly what a hosting company does or why they are so necessary. Because it is central to my point, I’m going to go talk for a moment about the technology behind websites. Bear with me and you’ll see this matters!
It’s an amazing thing that we all take for granted that you can, from the comfort of your living room, type a name into your web browser and have the content of that site appear on your screen. When someone does that, their computer asks the internet to turn that name into an IP address that refers to another computer, most likely sitting in a refrigerated room somewhere in the world. Because it is ‘serving’ the page, it is unimaginatively referred to as a [server](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Server_(computing). Their computer then asks the server for a web page so the it creates the page and then sends it to the user’s computer where it is displayed on their screen in all its glory.
Anyone can set up a website by connecting a computer to the internet and putting a website on it. Making a bad website is very easy, it’s obviously much more difficult to make a good one (which is how I pay for food, beer and a girlfriend).
So you’ve done so and now have a computer sitting in your house. On that computer you have put a very exciting website that a lot of people are interested in. You’ve bought a domain name so people can get to your website easily and everything is going swimmingly! Whenever someone types the name of your site into their web browser, their computer looks up the name on the internet, finds your computer, and asks it for your website. Your computer looks on its hard drive, finds the website and then sends it back across the world to their waiting eyes.
However, if the content of the site really is interesting, you’ll find a lot of people want to read it! Perhaps a few internet users stumble across it and before you know it Stephen Fry and Ben Goldacre have tweeted about it and all of a sudden you have millions of people that want to read what your website says.
This is a problem.
You may know what it feels like when one of your housemates is downloading some large files, perhaps another is watching people bicker on iPlayer and you are innocently trying to check your email. You’ve probably grown frustrated with how slow everything suddenly seems. Even though you spend £20 a month on “Super-Fast Broadband” it’s struggling to cope with doing a few things at once. Imagine how it feels when the first 1.5 million of Mr Fry’s followers descend on your life-changing prose in the 5 minutes following his tweet. But it gets worse, because broadband (at least broadband that you buy for your home) is designed for the usage of normal people which is (to summarise) getting pieces off of the internet. When you have fast broadband this typically means that your download speeds are very respectable but people tend not to notice upload speeds (apart from uploading Saturday night’s memories to Facebook) because people consume a lot more than they contribute. Furthermore, you only need your internet to be fast enough for you to watch youtube videos of kittens riding turtles which is in a completely different league to the kind of internet one would need to allow 1 million curious minds to read your wares.
Your computer will be quickly overwhelmed, the website will break and your ISP will yell blue murder at you.
Now of course it’s not impossible to set yourself up to keep your website running, but you’re going to need money and equipment. For starters, as we’ve established you’re going to need to pay a lot money to get jolly fast internet piped through to your house. On top of that you’re going to need a number of jolly fast computers that can work together to serve the website. Then you’ll need to pay the ongoing maintenance fees including the electricity to power all this new hardware that’s noisily whirring away in the spare room, not to mention having (or paying for) the technical expertise to keep it all running.
As with many things in the world these problems are much easier to deal with in bulk. A company can buy a big building somewhere and fill it with computers, refrigeration and technicians. They can rent these computers (or just space thereon) out to people who need a website for very reasonable amounts of money thanks to the magic that is economies of scale.
As you’ve probably predicted – this is where Amazon come in.
Back to the matter at hand
One facet to Amazon’s business is that of web services – they offer a fantastic range of highly polished services including hosting. As is common knowledge now, WikiLeaks were using Amazon’s offerings to host their website and these offerings (with Amazon’s massive resources and expertise behind them) allowed them to deal with DDoS attacks from anyone who didn’t want the website to remain running.
So let’s imagine that you are running WikiLeaks. Your site is subject to extraordinary amounts of traffic and under attack from all sides from unfriendly hackers but you need to keep it running. As it stands, you must ask yourself whether to spend outrageous sums on keeping such a website running yourself, or to use a reasonably priced, dedicated service with teams of experts and massive amounts of infrastructure behind them.
Clearly that would be a rhetorical question, but it shouldn’t have to be.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Amazon have taken a stand on an important censorship issue and as I said earlier, they are probably now seeing that there are direct financial consequences for passing judgement on a controversial website. The internet has filled up with cries of “boycott Amazon” from those riled by this affront to the freedom of our speech. I have a basket full of things to buy in my Amazon account but since hearing this news I’ve refrained from clicking ‘Proceed to Checkout’. It’s amazing how much I’ve come to depend on Amazon over the last few years and I think it takes something like this to make one step back and notice how deeply Amazon’s tendrils have penetrated one’s life. I’ve passed over my normal impulses to buy things there since the ‘incident’ (particularly mp3 albums, which are always such an easy impulse buy!) with some difficulty and it goes without saying that Christmas shopping without Amazon is an unappealing notion…
I feel very strongly about this and so my colleagues at work and people I’ve run into in evenings and this weekend have been subjected to my rants along these lines. But then I thought about it a bit more.
There’s a problem…
Amazon are a company that offer hosting services and frankly, they can allow whoever the hell they want. As they say in their press release they don’t screen applicants at the moment – anyone can sign up to use their web services as long as they agree to abide by the terms & conditions. In Amazon’s opinion, WikiLeaks did not adhere to these terms & conditions so they stopped providing them the service. It’s easy to talk about government pressure, mass opinion against Amazon or any other hypothetical reason for Amazon dropping WikiLeak but at the end of the day whatever their real motivation, it comes down to the simple fact that in Amazon’s view WikiLeaks did not follow the terms of service and so their service was cancelled. I’d get angry with my local if they didn’t serve me a beer late at night because I was too pissed, but it isn’t going to do any good. There are simple rules for using a pub and if I don’t follow them, I don’t get served a delicious pint of ale. That’s a bad comparison because there’s no larger issue (just a lager issue) of our rights at stake but it’s late and I can’t think of a better example at the moment.
More fundamentally, boycotting Amazon because we’re affronted by the injustice to our freedom of speech isn’t helpful and indeed serves to undermine our very purpose.
As I’ve explained above, hosting a high traffic website like WikiLeaks and keeping it running in the face of great opposition takes enormous resources and realistically in a capitalist democracy, large companies are always going to be the organisations that can bring the necessary resources to bear. It takes an Amazon to provide Amazon Web Services in the same way that it takes a Google to provide Gmail. Large companies are always going to be looking out for their shareholders but that doesn’t mean they can’t do amazing things as well, just that they have to make money.
I expressed my desire that Amazon will see the financial implications of dropping WikiLeaks, but follow that train of thought through… Starting a business that offers hosting suddenly looks like a risky idea, financially. If you currently own a web hosting company, I reckon you’d be pretty scared right now. Should WikiLeaks choose to use your service you have to decide whether or not to keep them running in the face of massive opposition. Governments suddenly have their eye on you, waves of criticism and scorn from WikiLeaks' very vocal opponents are directed to your company and your servers are subjected to massive attacks from all over the world as angry people try to bring the site down. On top of that, many of your customers are threatening to boycott your company in protest of your implicit support of the website. You check the site and realise that they’ve breached your terms of service and take the decision to cancel their service. Suddenly the entire internet rises up against you and the other half of your customers boycott your service in protest. Either way, you seem to lose.
Why not thank Amazon for hosting WikiLeaks for the time they did and for preserving their message against all the odds during what may end up being the peak of WikiLeaks' infamy?
If we Boycott Amazon and other hosting services that take down controversial sites into more stringent checks prior to being granted access to their web services, or even into pulling out of website hosting completely, we cut off a massively useful, massively necessary tool for our freedom of speech.
The real problem (as promised)
So it seems the real problem is the dependence we have on the large-scale resources that are required to keep a controversial website afloat.
I’ve tried to describe what it entails to run a website but in reality I’ve only touched on the basics, especially if you are bypassing hosting services. Domain names (like google.com) tend to be rented out by governments through third-party resellers so depending on the top level domain you are using, you may be subject to the rules of that government. WikiLeaks has indeed had its domain taken away by the US government since Amazon dropped the site. You’ll also need to rely on an ISP who are likely to have their own terms of service just like Amazon do.
We’ve got so used to taking the internet for granted that we’ve taken our eye off the ball that holds it up because while we were busy flirting with Twitter, playing with Facebook and relaxing with YouTube those companies and others like them were busy putting massive infrastructure in place to drive these brilliant sites and services.
The internet is a fantastic invention and we’re embracing it more tightly all the time, but the wonderful sense of freedom and entitlement people had in its infancy is fading fast.
Maybe it’s time we invented something new?