Technology × Freedom

Major Tech Companies Leave Behind Content Neutrality in the Wake of Charlottesville

August 18, 2017 nitsuj

In the days after events unraveled in Chrlottesville, pressure began mounting on major tech companies to make a decision: remain so-called “content-neutral” and allow white supremacists to continue using their platform – and weather the backlash that would entail – or kick them off. As many commentators have been quick to point out since the James Damore / Google memo brouhaha, these private companies have the right to choose who they employ and allow as customers, which is true. (If only they’d remember that principle when it’s not so convenient for their argument.) So, legally, they could choose either decision.

As we saw over this past week, many of the majors chose to kick them off and become “content-biased” if you will – although many like Facebook and PayPal were already well down that road. Here’s a summary of the major decisions, in case you missed any:

Cloudflare was one of the final holdouts, choosing to remain content-neutral even as the pressure mounted. That ended on Wednesday, however, when Cloudflare terminated service to the Daily Stormer.

Unlike the generic corporate denouncement of white supremacy that came out of many tech companies’ PR departments, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince sent a very thought-provoking email to his employees (quoted in its entirety in the Gizmodo article linked above). In particular, he explains why he made the decision after days of Cloudflare saying it would remain content-neutral:

My rationale for making this decision was simple: the people behind the Daily Stormer are assholes and I’d had enough.

Let me be clear: this was an arbitrary decision. It was different than what I’d talked talked with our senior team about yesterday. I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet. I called our legal team and told them what we were going to do. I called our Trust & Safety team and had them stop the service. It was a decision I could make because I’m the CEO of a major Internet infrastructure company.

Having made that decision we now need to talk about why it is so dangerous. I’ll be posting something on our blog later today. Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.

In the blog post he mentions, Prince fleshes out why his decision, as the overseer of a company that handles ~10% of internet requests, is so dangerous. Not only can he largely determine what can and cannot be online – literally in this case, as Cloudflare protected the Daily Stormer from being DDoS’d offline – but it also opens the door to political pressure in the future. Since beginning to publish their semi-annual transparency report in 2013, Cloudflare has been able to say that they’ve “never terminated a customer or taken down content due to political pressure,” which is one of four “warrant canaries” included in the report. But now:

We're going to have a long debate internally about whether we need to remove the bullet about not terminating a customer due to political pressure. It's powerful to be able to say you've never done something. And, after today, make no mistake, it will be a little bit harder for us to argue against a government somewhere pressuring us into taking down a site they don't like.

This is true not only of Cloudflare, but of any of the players that bring the internet to our devices. Prince counts no less than 11 different categories, including platforms like Facebook, domain registrars like GoDaddy, and browsers like Chrome. And don’t forget search engines like Google that a majority of the population relies upon as their jumping off point to the internet. Which category of infrastructure should be tasked with content policing? Prince doesn’t believe it’s at the level where Cloudflare resides, but doesn’t know the right answer.

Perhaps that’s because the right answer isn’t on his list: the individual. There’s no one better than the individual to decide what content they access online. If the decision is made at any higher level, it will always lead to one worldview being favored over another. Among left-leaning tech companies, this means a progressive worldview is favored over a conservative one, but it can of course go both ways.

But, one might object, this is a worldview of white supremacy we’re talking about! While I agree that it’s unquestionably vile and deserves full rebuke, censoring such a worldview is not the solution, as invisiblehand explains in his must-read article. The Daily Stormer may not be able to register their domain through GoDaddy or communicate through Reddit, but they’ll inevitably resurface elsewhere (like they already have on Tor), even more fired up for their cause than before.

Instead, the solution is to fight ideas like white supremacy with better ideas. Understand their arguments, engage them through words, and leave it to each individual to decide which idea is better. Relying on tech companies to make that decision for the entire internet will only cause the problem to become worse.