So what does Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' decision to buy the Washington Post mean?
That was the question NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik tackled on Morning Edition (8/6/13). It was good to hear Folkenflik note that there is an "enormous constellation of issues" that affect Amazon's bottom line in Washington–which should raise some concerns about conflicts of interest on issues like internet sales taxes and copyright/intellectual property.
And he added that the company is becoming a "major vendor" to the U.S. government, particularly in the realm of web storage. The most prominent example: The CIA recently reached a $600 million deal with Amazon to build its cloud storage system.
So what happens if, say, the Washington Post wants to report on something that CIA or other intelligence agencies might not like? Folkenflik commented:
I suspect Bezos doesn't intend to interfere in things like that, but we don't know how he's going to do it yet. We haven't seen him operate in this realm.
It's correct that we can't be sure, but we do have at least one lesson to consider: Amazon's relationship with WikiLeaks.
After the publication of the State Department cables, WikiLeaks was booted from Amazon's web hosting service AWS (Guardian, 12/1/10). So at the height of public interest in what WikiLeaks was publishing, readers were unable to access the WikiLeaks website. The decision came right after politicians like Senator Joe Lieberman called for action to retaliate against WikiLeaks. Amazon denied it had anything to do with politics. The company's statement stressed that the decision was theirs alone–WikiLeaks had violated the terms of service agreement, since "WikiLeaks doesn't own or otherwise control all the rights to this classified content."
Amazon's decision is troubling. But would it suggest a real shift? Former Post publisher Katharine Graham gave a speech in 1988 at the CIA headquarters where she reportedly said this:
We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things that the general public does not need to know and shouldn't. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.