Should Internet Infrastructure Have a Moral Compass?
I want to pose a moral question, but one for which I don't have a concrete answer. Maybe I'm just working this out in my head, and maybe you can share your own opinions to help flesh out the subject, I don't know. I just want to get this down on "paper".
The US suffered two mass-shootings in the last two days. On the whole, this isn't really news. That country is has had 248 mass shootings just this year. The question about why this is so common in the US when compared to most other civilised nations isn't something I'm going to cover here. That subject gets plenty of dialogue, and I think the answer is pretty well defined.
Running a website for a Very Large Audience is a complicated process. You can't simply put your site on shared hosting for $5 or even $500 per month and expect your site to stay online. With popularity comes traffic, and that traffic can come from all over the world, sometimes all at once. On top of that, if your site is controversial, or even just a fun target for people who don't like you very much, your site can be inundated with traffic from bots, choking it to death and running up your bandwidth bills.
To get around this, companies like Cloudflare exist. They supply the infrastructure that your popular site relies on to weather storms of popularity, caching layers to reduce the strain on your server, and protection from would-be attackers. On the whole, the services they provide are critical to the web as it is today.
The thing about Cloudflare though, is that they're rather good at what they do. So good in fact that their services underpin a Very Large Number of websites on the internet. They're so big in fact, with so few serious competitors, that you might think of them more as a utility than a private company. Your favourite news site probably uses them, video game companies, libraries, software companies, you name it, Cloudflare is probably handling their traffic. They host a lot of the web... including a lot of the shadier parts of it.
Yeah we're talking about Nazis.
Hate sites are a perfect client for a company like Cloudflare: they have few resources (so they can't afford a massive array of servers) and are a likely target for attack (because they're Nazis). One might even say that without support from Cloudflare (or one of its few competitors), these sites simply couldn't serve their hateful audience.
So when a tragedy like this one happens, and we see that the murderers are being celebrated on the website that helped radicalise them, an obvious question must be asked: What kind of company would support that?
Truth be told, Cloudflare has the power to knock these sites off the web. All they have to do is withhold their services and wait for a bot army to shut it down. Indeed, that's exactly what they did when their CEO Mattew Prince unilaterally pulled Cloudflare's support for a particular Nazi site (no I won't mention it here) after the protest and murder in Charlottesville, Virginia. The site went down alright, and had to scramble for a replacement -- which they found eventually, but not of Cloudflare's calibre.
So now we have these mass shootings to contend with. There's another site out there full of hate that promotes violence, and now Cloudflare is being asked: "Why can't you just kick these assholes off the web like you did those other assholes?"
As of this writing, the site is still up & running, but I'm really not sure what to expect from their end on this one. The problem is that this is really a question of what the function of internet infrastructure should be: do we want an internet of neutral networks over which we can share our ideas, or do we want that conversation mediated by the companies that facilitate that exchange?
With Charlottesville, Cloudflare set a dangerous precedent. More than a benign piece of infrastructure, they were now making decisions about the nature of the content that made use of their system. Matthew Prince, their CEO remarked at the time on the fragile ground he and his company were treading.
Now, were it entirely up to me, I would want some editorial control over what my company supports in the world. I would have a whole department dedicated to making sure that our clients conform to the moral compass of the company -- but maybe that's a reason why I shouldn't be in charge of a company that's a de-facto piece of internet infrastructure.
The trouble for me is Cloudlfare's size and the critical role it plays in simply keeping the internet running. Cloudflare is so fundamental to how the internet functions that asking (or expecting) them to make a value judgement on the existence of one site is tantamount to trusting their CEO with the nature of our primary means of communication.
This is not a slippery slope argument. They're already feeling pressure from the music industry to monitor web traffic for content that infringes copyright. Cloudflare is an excellent vector for anyone wanting to remove anything from the web because they're so ubiquitous.
I'm still not sure. I want Cloudflare to kick 8chan off its platform. I'd like them to kick a lot of their more controversial clients off their services -- but that's my moral judgement. No one elected me (or Matthew Prince for that matter) -- why should either of us get to decide what does and doesn't get to be on the internet? What if Matthew would rather not serve PornHub or PlannedParenthood?
In the end, a lot of this discussion leads back to one of the critical failures of the internet and globalisation in general: no one is in charge. The internet is global, but at best, the only government anyone can appeal to to make collective decisions like this is that of the company's host country, and in a global society, that just isn't good enough. We've already seen the effects of the US's sex-negative culture on the web. Entrusting the American government with the future of global communication is decidedly a Bad Idea, but there's literally no alternative.
And so, here we are with another tragedy bolstered by hateful people on a hateful website and private infrastructure companies operating blindly on whatever they think will get them into the least amount of trouble. It's a terrible system, but I don't see a way out.