Science / Tech

Internet Infrastructure is the New Battleground for Free Speech

In early August, Google engineer James Damore made headlines when his skeptical critique of Google’s diversity agenda was leaked to the public. While most of the tech media had a collective meltdown, Quillette published an intelligent response by four respected academics, defending some of the science underpinning Damore’s arguments. Unfortunately, it didn’t stay online for very long. The site was promptly hit by a denial of service attack which rendered it inaccessible for about a day. Whether the attack was the work of some left-leaning script kiddie offended by the support for Damore, or a false-flag operation designed to make us assume as much, we will likely never know. Whatever the motivation, the fact remains that person or persons unknown were able to unilaterally, albeit only temporarily, decide what legally-published content was allowed to appear online.

The normal solution to attacks such as this is to enlist the services of a company like CloudFlare, who can defend a site by concealing its true location within a much larger network. This was presumably what the administrators of the Daily Stormer, a notorious neo-Nazi community, were expecting when they signed up for CloudFlare’s protection. But after the Stormer published offensive remarks about a protester murdered at a rally in Charlottesville, the CEO of Cloudflare decided he no longer wanted their business, as did the domain registrar GoDaddy and several other hosting providers. The site was forced to move to a so-called “hidden service” within the anonymizing Tor network, at which point the developers of Tor jumped on the bandwagon with their own public denunciation of far-right politics. Amidst all the media cheering, only the Electronic Frontier Foundation thought to question the wisdom of asking the providers of internet infrastructure, who are supposed to act as content-neutral conduits, to take on the role of extrajudicial online thought police.

By all accounts, the Daily Stormer publishes repulsive content, including actual calls for violence against Jews. The internet is a better place without it. However, extremists are not the only ones being targeted in this way. Shortly after they fired James Damore for his wrongthink, Google also purged Gab—the anti-censorship alternative to Twitter which I have previously written about on Quillette—from the Android app store. The excuse given was that the app contained (you guessed it) “hate speech.” Although undoubtedly popular with Trump supporters, some of whom might cross the line into overt racism, Gab itself is just a platform open to anyone who wishes to exercise their First Amendment rights. It does not advocate any particular ideology, it does not endorse the opinions of its users, and its rules specifically forbid the promotion of violence or terrorism. The thing about witch hunts, though, is that it’s never enough to burn the witch: you also have to burn anyone suspected of enabling, sympathising with or defending witches. As far as the no-platforming paternalists of Mountain View are concerned, allowing someone the freedom to speak means that you agree with everything they say.

What is remarkable about this new Nazi hysteria is how selective it is. A few days after Charlottesville there were two Islamic terror attacks in Catalonia that killed 16 people. How many CloudFlare customers were booted off the platform as a result? How many Islamic State websites did GoDaddy shut down? How many blog posts did the Tor project write about the violence and hatred of radical Islamists? None, as far as we can tell. Either these companies believe that a tiny fringe group of deeply unpopular white supremacists is more of a threat than a global terror network that has killed thousands of people, or their actions are just publicity stunts designed to appease the latest Twittermob.

Censorship on mainstream social media is old news, but we are now seeing a worrying escalation of the phenomenon, as the providers of core infrastructure—web hosting, domain registrations, DDoS protection—are getting in on the act. Previously, if you didn’t like the way Twitter and Facebook run their platforms, the solution was simple: make your own site, where the rules are more relaxed and legally protected speech is not removed for political reasons. Now, even this option is being taken off the table. Your alternative site still depends on commercial organisations to host it, route traffic to it, list it in search results, and protect it from attacks. Once these companies abandon their role as content-neutral network operators and fall down the rabbit-hole of identity politics and virtue-signalling, the internet as we know it can no longer function. It ceases to be a free market where services compete on their own merits, and becomes just another walled garden: patrolled by a conformist monoculture of unaccountable Silicon Valley elites, who tolerate no skepticism or dissent, and from whom there is no escape.

In the early days of the Internet, it was hoped that its distributed nature would offer resilience against restrictions imposed by powerful entities such as governments. This robustness does still exist, but only at a fairly low level, where raw packets of data are routed between numerical addresses. The multitude of services that make the internet usable for ordinary people are very much centralised, and with the rise of the smartphone duopoly and their curated app stores, this centralisation has got a whole lot worse. If we can’t trust infrastructure providers to uphold the essential value of free speech upon which the internet—and arguably, Western civilisation itself—was founded, then we either need to replace them with somebody else who will, or find a technical solution that removes them from the equation altogether.

Matthew Mott
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Matthew Mott

Matthew Mott is a writer and photographer with a background in technology, based in the UK. He can be found on Gab.ai as @InfiniteDissent
Matthew Mott
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Filed under: Science / Tech

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Matthew Mott is a writer and photographer with a background in technology, based in the UK. He can be found on Gab.ai as @InfiniteDissent

11 Comments

  1. 1. Google is a private company and can remove any employees disrupting its business. Google did not censor anyone’s views. When an employee circulates an email that distracts the company from making profitable business, the company can take action against the employee.
    2. Internet providers are also for-profit businesses and they have no obligation to be neutral to anybody, unless it serves them financially to. Their role was never neutral. They do not provide “public infrastructure”.
    3. This is what free market looks like, competition of goods, services and ideas. Looks like incendiary speech cannot compete in a free market of ideas.

    • Lina Inverse says

      “Google did not censor anyone’s views.”

      They did when the put dailystormer.com in the clientHold state, as did Network Solutions for the old, White Nationalism 1.0 stormfront.org domain. That’s outright seizure of their domains, with no appeal except I suppose to ICANN, which is no longer working for the US government with our First Amendment protections.

      As for “muh free market”, I suppose the railroad companies and their supporters thought the same thing before the Interstate Commerce Commission was created in 1887 to bring them to heel.

    • No one is proposing that these companies ought not be able to do what they’ve done; as far as I read it the author is saying that the situation is that, with their vastly powerful and controlling monopolies, the impact of such decisions is grave.

    • J smit says

      In fact, no, they can’t, in America political opinions are explicitly protected. Your employer cannot legally remove you from your position for refusing to conform to a company sanctioned political view or expressing an unsanctioned one.

    • J smit says

      In fact, in America it is actually illegal to fire someone for not holding a company sanctioned political position, or for expressing an unsanctioned political position. But I’m sure you would think the same thing if it was a leftist being fired from a fairly conservative company and aren’t ideologically driven at all.

    • “Google is a private company and can remove any employees disrupting its business”

      I never claimed that Google, or any other company, has acted unlawfully. They are free to fire their employees and remove apps from their app store, and we are free to criticise them and look for ways to reduce their power. “Private company” is not a magic get-out-of-jail-free card that instantly nullifies all criticism of a company’s behaviour.

      “Internet providers are also for-profit businesses and they have no obligation to be neutral”

      Telephone companies are also for-profit businesses. Does this mean that they should be allowed to listen in to your phone calls and terminate your service if they don’t like the things you talk about with your friends? Should an electricity company be able to cut off your power if an online mob tells them that a Nazi lives in your house?

      “This is what a free market of ideas looks like”

      No, actually it isn’t. A small number of powerful companies deciding what everyone else can say on the internet is the very opposite of a “free market of ideas”. Losing in the battle of ideas might cause your site to wither and die due to lack of public support and funding, but it does not involve a Silicon Valley CEO kicking you off the internet because he doesn’t like what you say.

    • RE: “When an employee circulates an email that distracts the company from making profitable business”

      The memo simply pointed out the distraction from making profitable businessess – left wing stupidity and nerosis – it didn’t cause it.

    • Define “private company”? was google not aided and funded by american intelligence agencies? are they not incorporated under multiple jurisdictions, and thus vulnerable to host government edicts?

      When an incorporated organization starts doing the government’s bidding, can u actually still consider that a free market?

      an actual private company will probably not exist in its purity, until there is infrastructure that is truly politically neutral.

      The only option I see for such entities existing is the success of distributed cryptographic databases, like #Bitcoin.

  2. “we either need to replace them with somebody else who will, or find a technical solution that removes them from the equation altogether”

    “somebody else who will” always becomes “somebody who didn’t”. There is only one way forward, and that is by making things impossible to censor. It’s my hope that with ban-happy censors, sufficient people are now being affected, even on their backup platforms, they will come to realize this, and decide to make change happen, through the use of their skills, and their funds.

  3. Michael says

    The answer (with current technology) lies with distributed blockchain based technologies that cannot be censored. The beta release of the lbry (pronounced “library”) protocol promises this. It’s 4 letters as it is a separate protocol like http, so content is at lbry://etc. It’s like an amalgam of bitcoin and BitTorrent. Whereas current torrent clients are difficult to search and there is no incentive to maintain content for seeding, lbry works with a token-based incentive, so that publishers who wish to charge for content are paid in lbry credits (LBC – which can be bought on crypto exchanges) and once beta is ended and the product launched, hosts get a cut of paid content as an incentive to keep it on their hard drives. It’s completely decentralised so cannot be censored. The author maintains compete control. All of Jordan B Peterson’s videos are hosted on LBRY. Have a look at it. Use the beta – publish to it. If you want the reward credits offered during the beta period they verify identity via credit card to deter bots sigining up multiple accounts, but if you don’t want those rewards it can be anonymous.

    Check it out and download the client for your machine at http://lbry.io

    You can also publish completely anonymously to the lbry network using the experimental website http://spee.ch

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