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The terrifying power of internet censors

With only a few firms in this business, the consequences can be serious

Kate Klonick | NYT 

The terrifying power of internet censors
Internet censorship

After the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month where a man drove a car into a crowd, killing a counter-demonstrator, the American neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer published a long, hate-riddled post mocking the victim.

Outcry over the article led its domain registrar, GoDaddy, to end The Daily Stormer’s service. The site then registered with Google, which also quickly cancelled its hosting. It wasn’t until Cloudflare, a website security and performance service, dropped the site as a client that The Daily Stormer truly lost its ability to stay online.

Because of the precise nature of Cloudflare’s business and the scarcity of competitors, its role censoring speech is not just new, it’s terrifying.

What makes Cloudflare an essential part of the is its ability to block malicious traffic from barraging clients’ websites with requests that take them offline. Cloudflare is one of the few companies in the world that provide this kind of reliable protection. If you don’t want your website to get taken down by extortionists, jokers, political opposition or hackers, you have to hire Cloudflare or one of its very few competitors.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of corporate players on the internet: Companies that build infrastructure through which content flows and companies that seek to curate content and create a community.

service providers like Verizon and Comcast, domain name servers, web hosts and security services providers like Cloudflare are all the former — or the “pipe”. They typically don’t look at the content their clients and customers are putting up, they just give them the means to do it and let it flow. Social media platforms like Facebook are the latter. They encourage their users to create, share and engage with content — so they look at content all the time and decide whether they want to allow hateful material like that of neo-Nazis to stay up.

While there have long been worries about service providers favouring access to some content over others, there has been less concern about companies further along the pipeline holding an on/off switch. In large part, this is because at other points in the pipeline, users have choice. Private companies can make their own rules, and consumers can choose among them. If GoDaddy won’t register your domain, you can go to Bluehost or thousands of other companies.

But the fewer choices you have for the infrastructure you need to stay online, the more serious the consequences when companies refuse service. This is why Cloudflare’s decision to drop The Daily Stormer is so significant. Denying security service to one Nazi website seems fine now, but what if Cloudflare started suspending service for a political candidate that its chief executive didn’t like?

With this move, Cloudflare is wading into the business of evaluating the content of its clients — something sites like Facebook and Twitter have been wrestling with for years, leading them to develop complex rules and procedures that govern what users are and are not allowed to post.

Last week, Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s chief executive, acknowledged how much power his company has, and what’s at stake. “The is a really important resource for everyone,” he said in an interview with TechCrunch, “but there’s a very limited set of companies that control it and there’s such little accountability to us that it really is quite a dangerous thing.”

© 2017 New York Times News Service

First Published: Wed, September 13 2017. 23:19 IST