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Major American companies may, indeed, have more freedom than the government to act against WikiLeaks - and against other speech they don't like. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: MasterCard, Visa and PayPal all stopped accepting donations to WikiLeaks. Jennifer Stalzer, of MasterCard, says the situation was just too sticky.

Ms. JENNIFER STALZER (MasterCard): Given the serious nature of allegations and broad concerns raised by many regarding the activities of this organization, we believe it was prudent to suspend acceptance. And that's what we've done.

SYDELL: PayPal just said WikiLeaks might be encouraging illegal behavior, and that violated PayPal's acceptable-use policy. Amazon pointed to its terms-of-service agreement when it threw WikiLeaks off its servers.

But Clay Shirky, who teaches in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, thinks terms-of-service agreements give companies too much power.

Professor CLAY SHIRKY (Interactive Telecommunications, New York University): Every corp. counsel, at every large organization, is basically paid to write a Web terms of service, which reads: We can do anything at any time for no reason, with no announcement and no recourse.

SYDELL: If you have ever signed up for any Web service - PayPal, Facebook, Amazon, iTunes, Twitter, Gmail; the list goes on - you have accepted a terms-of-service agreement.

Prof. SHIRKY: We get a world where basically, if you can make any kind of speech just be too much of a hassle, it can be taken off the Internet.

SYDELL: Shirky says a perfect example are the hackers who support WikiLeaks and call themselves Anonymous. They were using Twitter and Facebook to organize denial-of-service attacks against PayPal, Visa, MasterCard and Amazon. Twitter and Facebook just shut down their accounts.

Tim Wu, a professor of law at Columbia, thinks Twitter is hypocritical because it permitted Iranian activists to plan on their site, but not WikiLeaks supporters.

Professor TIM WU (Law, Columbia University): There are people who should demand of Twitter: What are you doing? Since when are you in the business of deciding who and who isn't a good civil disobedience movement?

SYDELL: Marcia Hoffman says it's not just corporations trying to shut people up.

Ms. MARCIA HOFFMAN (Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation): What we're seeing right now are a lot of situations in which people are simply trying to silence speech that they don't like - on all sides.

SYDELL: Hoffman is an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil rights group. They condemned the anonymous hackers who support WikiLeaks for attacking the websites of Amazon, PayPal, Visa and MasterCard. So the anonymous hackers turned around and attacked the Electronic Frontier Foundation website.

So far, the structure of the Internet continues to make it hard for anyone to really censor anyone else, says Columbia professor Tim Wu.

Prof. WU: You can make it hard for them to get money, and you can make it hard for them to get Web server space. So you can basically be ostracized, but not destroyed.

SYDELL: WikiLeaks now has a server in Switzerland. The hackers who call themselves Anonymous have found other places online to organize. But as private companies like Facebook and Twitter become the dominant online forums, their ability to shut out speech may have a larger impact on public dialogue. Wu and other observers do worry that keeping the Internet open isn't going to be easy.

In countries like China, it's the government that limits access to content online. In the U.S., it's becoming more common for private companies to do the censoring.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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