Why we removed the WikiLeaks visualizations

By Elissa Fink December 1, 2010

Wednesday afternoon, Tableau Software removed data visualizations published by WikiLeaks to Tableau Public. We understand this is a sensitive issue and want to assure the public and our users that this was not an easy decision, nor one that we took lightly.

We created Tableau Public—a free service that enables anyone to make interactive graphs from their data and share them online—because we recognized the need for strong analytics tools in a data-driven world. Given the controversy around the WikiLeaks data, we’ve closely followed the debate about who actually has the rights to the leaked data.

Our terms of service require that people using Tableau Public do not upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any content that they do not have the right to make available. Furthermore, if we receive a complaint about a particular set of data, we retain the right to investigate the situation and remove any offending data, if necessary.

Our decision to remove the data from our servers came in response to a public request by Senator Joe Lieberman, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, when he called for organizations hosting WikiLeaks to terminate their relationship with the website.

This will inevitably be met with mixed reaction. However, our terms of service were created to ensure responsible use of data.


Submitted by Michael C. on


Thanks for this explanation. Surely, as you state, this must have been a difficult decision in some ways. You owe it to the growing base of citizen journalists, open data advocates, and Tableau enthusiasts/practitioners to fairly and evenly apply the terms of service by which we all agree when availing ourselves of your generous offer to host our work. The perceived "value" of the the data being shared is something that you do not judge per se, and it is clear that you have not sat in judgment to date. And, the "value" of any data hosted on Tableau Public fails as a criterion of entitlement.

On the other hand, as in this case, it looks like right-to-use flunked the test. So be it. This should not deter anyone from using Tableau Public as a technological tool to advance the public good. In fact, your commitment to contributing to a better world should hearten all your many fans and comfort even the harshest critics of this decision.

As always.

Peace and All Good!
Michael W Cristiani

Submitted by Pugget (not verified) on

Thank you for making it easy to never use your software again. Companies who are unwilling to support free speech do not receive my support.

Submitted by D (not verified) on

A big +1!!

Submitted by Ryan Kirk (not verified) on

I am quite disappointed by this. According to the author, James Ball, the visualizations contained no sensitive data. Of course you have the legal right to stop hosting the data, but what will that accomplish? If he doesn't own a copy of Tableu, he can download a trial and generate PDF's and host elsewhere. But what if something even more interesting was found in the data through the interactive nature of your site, or what if it brought awareness to a particular data point that was public but obscured? I'm saddened to see that Tableau is not principled enough to explore new and interesting data.

Submitted by D (not verified) on

That +1 was for Pugget's comment FYI

Submitted by veelo2 (not verified) on

I have always used and enjoyed Tableau software. This act of cowardice and capitulation in the face of government censorship makes it impossible for me to use your services with a clear conscience. I'm very disappointed by your decision.

Submitted by Alice Dubiel (not verified) on

Quite surprised by this explanation. I don't understand the credibility "Senator" Lieberman has with you, since he is a politician, neither a journalist nor scholar who could evaluate it.
As for who has the rights to the data, it is clear that those censoring it want to hide if from the American public. As a member of that public, I feel that we paid for it and we own it.

Submitted by Wu (not verified) on

I'm disappointed. Won't use Tableau Software anymore.

Submitted by Pugget speaks truth (not verified) on

Yes, bow my minions. Bow to the power of oppression and censorship.

Submitted by ugghly (not verified) on

Time to start shopping around for new visualization tools. If you can't keep your noses out of your clients' business, then you don't deserve my traffic.

Submitted by partialobs (not verified) on

...do not upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any content that they do not have the right to make available

Sorry, this appeal to your vanilla terms of use is far from getting you off the hook. You can defend this as a business decision if you want but it is not at all clear in what sense Wikileaks does not have the "right to make available" plots that they have made from data provided to them and (at this point) freely published by many media sources all over the Internet and in paper form.

Obviously a business is entitled to make their own business decisions. Just as obviously, consumers and clients will make their own business decisions regarding companies that cave quickly in response to unjustified external political pressures.

Mostly, I think, you are sorry to be exposed as cowards. And you should be.


Submitted by Nutella (not verified) on

But you did not "receive a complaint" from anyone, according to your post. You heard one politician grandstanding and folded immediately.

@jamesrbuk says "I'm the author of the @tableau visualisations. They weren't directly based on #cablegate data and contained no sensitive info"

Did you do any investigation at all before censoring these visualizations?

Submitted by data rockstar (not verified) on

When free speech is outlawed, only outlaws will practice free speech.

Submitted by Zunno (not verified) on

So you pulled content that has (by now) already appeared in most major daily newspapers in the absence of any specific legal threat?

Well done. The terrorists have already won.

Submitted by ktula (not verified) on

Caving in to some nonsensical statements by a politician shows how much you care about your users. You have just lost me as a user, for good.

Submitted by Pugget is right (not verified) on

Yeah, great! Your company is impressing me for not having the balls to let the truth be what it should be : revealed. We, potential users of your software (as a start-up CEO), are not fed by this speech which tells to cover all things to protect citizens; in fact, they are getting more and more idiot.
France will get aware of the capacities of your great company, thanks for the advertisement.

Submitted by CR (not verified) on

Surely you don't expect a "mixed reaction" here do you? If you do you are as short sighted as your decision was to pull the content in the first place. Good luck staying in business.

Submitted by twiddle723 (not verified) on

Lieberman is running amok over free speech and freedom of the worldwide web. The more he wants to squelch this stuff the more I want to read it. Shame on you for rolling over so easily.

Submitted by data geek (not verified) on

There was a time where I was proud of US values: Democracy, freedom, justice.

I realize that all these values, unfortunately, have been lost. Within a decade the US became a mockery of a democracy, without freedom of speech and where justice is replaced by the political attempt of staying in power.

Shame on tableausoftware for you decision. US people do not deserve the benefits of the First Amendment any longer, if all it takes is a request by a senator.

Submitted by Ed (not verified) on

This makes you look like underdogs.

You live in the land of the free, yet again you undermine the right to free speech. As the other ones pointed out, it makes you look like cowards.

Free speech is the foundation of a democratic society. When you remove the data based on something which I presume is a form of "copyright" concern, ignoring the aspect of free speech.. Well, let me simply say, you got your priorities wrong.

You get a call from the government urging you not to help. You say "yes sir"?? With this post, you are trying to hide the fact that you were scared shitless.

I urge you to IMMEADIATELY repost the content to your service. If you fail to do so within the next 24 hours, personally I will start buying domains and actively join forums that concerns your software an use my free speech.

This is an intolerable act.

Submitted by efink on

Thanks for the comments, all. We recognize the importance of this dialog.

We absolutely support free speech. We love when people share new and interesting data. That’s why we built Tableau Public.

However we do have terms of use that state a user must have rights to the data they publish. In this situation, that wasn't the case. We didn't make an editorial decision but we do respond to complaints.

Submitted by ounce a user (not verified) on

pathetic, I wont use your service again. cowards

Submitted by A patriot (not verified) on

Don't do what you have to do for a government,
Do what you have to do for World Citizens.

Submitted by Mike Cantelon (not verified) on

Here's to rule by men, not rule by law.

Submitted by steve white (not verified) on

its was only tots ups and category summaries of the data they didn't' publish anything that was stolen or copyrighted on tableau.

Submitted by citizen (not verified) on

tableau software = helping ruin the internet.

Submitted by McCarthy (not verified) on

A truly pitiful, anti-american, anti-democratic act. Shame on you.

Submitted by McCarthy (not verified) on

Oh, but the poster did have the rights to this data. You absolutely do not support free speech, as your actions have shown.

Submitted by Shocked (not verified) on

This is disturbing. I live in Germany and we're already suffering massive cuts in terms of individual liberties as is freedom of speech while having a very bad track record of letting fascists get away with doing so only a few decades ago. You have no idea how this feels.

I am convinced that you guys submit to the wrong people. I haven't heard of your company before and I will from now on do everything I can to keep others from using any of your products or services.

Submitted by Michael C. on

Hello, Ryan.

Here we run into a logical dilemma, no? You are quite right that Tableau has a right to host or not host on Tableau Public any material for any reason. Your suggestion of generating PDFs from work done using a Tableau Trial (again, free) is also a great idea, IMHO. But, expecting Tableau to offer up their servers to be pounded at the expense of others who have an equal expectation that there occasionally viewed material is available to their own viewers is a bit puzzling to me. In fact, Tableau offers a service for these heavy use situations, called Tableau Digital. Of course, Tableau Digital is not free, but provides a more robust platform dedicated to a particular high-traffic situation like this one. CBS Sports, which I think uses this service, rightly does not expect Tableau Public authors to suffer at its expense because its content is wildly popular. Surely, those who have an interest in guaranteeing that this material be viewed by the widest possible audience have the means to help out with the reasonable cost and better level of service offered by Tableau Digital.

Arguably, the visualizations, as you stated, "contained no sensitive data", but I wonder if they were fruit of a poisoned tree, and would not be possible without the dubiously obtained material. Back to ends and means, I guess. Oh, and entitlement. What do you think?


Peace and All Good!
Michael W Cristiani

Submitted by Rich Gibson (not verified) on

You failed. Deeply. Joe Lieberman is an evil thug - his name is the one our children will learn to curse even as we learned to curse the evil of McCarthy.

Your statements about your terms of use are simple hackery in support of evil. You had the power of the DMCA to use in order to tell Lieberman to go f*** himself.

You _chose_ to support evil, it was not forced on you.

Submitted by B1 (not verified) on

Interesting how you went back and wiped Ellie Field's blog entry proudly trumpeting the fact that "Wikileaks is using Tableau to show the breadth of the data by subject, country, origin and classification, organization, program and topic."

Shame you can't wipe Google cache too eh?

"Tableau software - attempting to rewrite history since 2010"

doubleplus good

Submitted by Ando R. (not verified) on

The datas provided by Wikileaks were allowed to be shared. There isn't any copyright infringement, and these documents are not under Secret of State.
They weren't stolen to an indivudual.
So I can't understand your statement.

Submitted by pew (not verified) on

It's a shame that can't stand up against a unlawful censorship.

Submitted by gregorylent (not verified) on

disgusting copout. would wager even your attorneys would not endorse your reasoning on rights.

Submitted by Julian Burgess (not verified) on

Just to be clear; were Tableau hosting any data that was directly part of the WikiLeaks CableGate dump? My understanding was that the data you were hosting was an aggregated work derived from that data.

Submitted by evmonk (not verified) on

I don't think this decision is "pitiful" or "pathetic" or anything as extreme as what many commenters have said. A senator made a public request that you take down some highly controversial information. As a business, I'm sure it's hard to get a serious request from a senator and tell them no, even when they're as douchy as Joe Lieberman. Unlike Wikileaks, you guys didn't sign up for negative attention from governments and intelligence organizations.

At the same time, it's certainly sad that Joe Lieberman is able to go around single-handedly censoring the internet. It would have been nice if you guys asked him to provide something more concrete/legally-binding than a simple request. That's what I like to think I'd do if placed in the same position. But I get why you didn't. Hopefully you can find the courage and legal/technical justification for keeping Tableau a truly open platform.

Submitted by Ratt (not verified) on

You say this was a difficult decision? I dare say, you took the EASIER decision.

This is a very sad day for freedom in the U.S. Especially with the lack of full investigation and knee-jerk calls for "accountability." What happened to accountability in leveling charges of wrongdoing? You know, the notion of innocent until proven guilty? Oh, and btw, who determined whether or not the uploader was absent the rights to do so? NONE of this is actually established but, as a hosting site, fearful of the "powerful", you opted for the coward's way out. It appears you didn't even TRY to put up a fight!

Joe Lieberman is NOT acting in the best interests of the country, and to capitulate to his wishes is, IMO, nothing short of abdication or your rights to uphold access to and availability of free speech in this country and, by extension, serves to waive away our rights to it as well.

Way to go in helping erode even basic civil rights in the US even further. I hope you (and other hosting services) seriously come to your senses when looking at the bigger picture.

Submitted by partialobs (not verified) on

Dear Elissa,

You appear not to understand that appealing to your Terms of Use is simply not a sufficient defense of your actions.

1. Do you routinely review User-provided content for violation of your Terms of Use?

2. If so, does this review policy endanger any possible future claims for DMCA "safe harbor" status for your website? (Suggest consulting corporate counsel before replying.)

3. If not, what exactly prompted your review of the Wikileaks-posted content? Do you accept notices from 3rd parties rather than (as specified in the DMCA) the actual copyright holder? And in this case, does your policy of accepting notices from non-rights holders endanger possible future claimes for DMCA "safe harbor" status for your website? (Again, suggest consulting with corporate counsel.)

4. How did you determine that in this case your Terms of Use had been violated?

5. In particular, was your conclusion that the Terms of Use had been violated due to a written or oral opinion of Corporate Counsel, or did you accept the legal judgment of Senator Lieberman on this subject?

If you can answer these questions then we will be making progress.


Submitted by Ryan Kirk (not verified) on

Hi Michael,

Hello again to you. Elissa didn't claim it was a bandwidth issue, she claimed it was a violation of their TOS. As others have pointed out, that's a rather weak argument, considering the Supreme Court's ruling in Gravel v. United States (the Pentagon Papers case). Wikileaks and the New York Times can publish the data with impunity, so Tableau could too, if they wanted to. Instead, they chose to cave.

Like other commenters, I would much rather work with a company willing to defend and fight for its users.

Submitted by data rockstar (not verified) on

Sorry this doesn't wash.

If you're faced with a decision over ownership of data on this scale you should have gone to a lawyer and got a legal opinion over whether the poster had the right to put it on your server. If there was any possibility the user had a right to use the data then you should have kept it right up to the point you were served a court order by the thuggish Senator for Connecticut.

Your actions and those of Amazon in folding to Senator Lieberman are deeply worrying. There are laws protecting freedom of speech and courts to uphold them. This should not be done by veiled threats and people running scared.

You've helped make it much harder to protest the next time the Chinese, Burmese or Iranians crack down on bloggers or websites. Now they can say 'look what you do in the West' - and the terrible fact is that they'll have a point.

Submitted by peej (not verified) on

Lost me as a (potential) customer.

Have fun censoring the rest of your content. Hope you get sued now that you're out of the safe harbor.

Submitted by Charles (not verified) on

I imagine in the coming days you will realise that you've made a huge mistake.

Submitted by Brady J. Frey (not verified) on

Censorship. There's no way around it, you will not recover from this loss of credibility.

Submitted by Ry (not verified) on

So you're happy to participate in the suppression of free speech at the behest of your government? Last time I checked Wikileaks had not been either charged or, more importantly, found guilty of any crimes.

Perhaps your secretly working to prove why Wikileaks is both right and necessary.

Submitted by Idiotic (not verified) on

"Mixed" reaction indeed…

Submitted by pipetodevnull (not verified) on

Maybe Lieberman can provide you with some nice data that is safer. I'm looking elsewhere and must now recommend the same to others.

Submitted by r00fus (not verified) on

Wikileaks is not guilty (or even charged) of any crimes.
This is a cowardly move.

Submitted by Mike Carter (not verified) on

Shame on you, you cowards.

non-humans click here