What responsibility do hosting companies have for sites like 8chan?

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the New Gatekeepers blog at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Over the August 4th weekend, another mass shooting took place in which the shooter posted material related to his attack — including written “manifestos,” as well as images and in some cases live, streaming video — to the controversial online community 8chan. The gunman in the latest case, who killed 20 people in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, posted his alleged justification for the rampage on 8chan’s message boards, and so did the killer in the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand in March, and the shooter who opened fire on a mosque near San Diego, Calif. in April. Commenters on the 8chan threads for these acts referred to each of the shooters as “our guy,” and in some cases have talked about the killing as a “high score,” the way someone playing a video game would.

Until late Sunday night, 8chan used the services of a company called Cloudflare, which runs a network of powerful internet “proxy” servers that can balance the traffic going to such sites when there is a sudden onslaught of visitors — either because a piece of content has become popular, or because malicious users are directing a “denial of service” attack at the site by hitting it with an automated deluge of traffic. When 8chan’s role in the latest mass shooting came to light, reporters asked Cloudflare whether the company planned to continue providing these services to the site, and Cloudflare said yes, arguing that it isn’t up to the company to decide what kinds of content are appropriate. But by late Sunday, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince had changed his mind, and said 8chan would be blocked from using the service.

This isn’t the first time this issue has come up for Cloudflare. In 2017, the company went through a similar debate before cutting off neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, which routinely promotes racism and white supremacist ideology. Prince finally decided to block the site from Cloudflare’s service, but wrote a long and thoughtful blog post about how he didn’t think his company and others like it —those that provide hosting services and other utilities — should have the power to effectively remove certain websites from the public internet. “Due Process requires that decisions be public and not arbitrary,” Prince said. “Law enforcement, legislators, and courts have the political legitimacy and predictability to make decisions on what content should be restricted. Companies should not.” Prince said something very similar in a blog post about 8chan, as well as in interviews, as did legal experts such as Kate Klonick of Yale Law School, an expert in censorship and online misinformation

A provider like Cloudflare can’t block a site from the internet completely, but removing its services means 8chan could be crippled fairly easily by a denial-of-service attack or some other exploit. In effect, it makes the site much less stable, which in turn makes it less likely to have as much reach. And Cloudflare isn’t the only one that has taken action: Google removed 8chan from its search index in 2015, which means that anyone searching for it gets links to Wikipedia entries and news stories about it rather than a link to the site itself. Of course, the content often filters out even when the sites themselves are taken down: the conservative news site The Drudge Report, for example, posted a version of the El Paso killer’s manifesto even though most other sites refused to even link to it. And Gizmodo notes that while Cloudflare may have removed 8chan, the proxy service and other hosting services continue to support a wide range of other objectionable and hate-filled sites. 

As was the case with The Daily Stormer, the removal of service by companies like Cloudflare usually results in a scramble to come up with alternative hosting and DoS protection. Much like the neo-Nazi site, 8chan fairly quickly signed up with a Cloudflare-like provider called Bitmitigate — which is a subsidiary of Epik, a company whose founder bragged about helping to host The Daily Stormer after it was taken offline. But even an internet utility has to rely on other utilities for its livelihood, which in turn makes its content and services vulnerable. In the case of Bitmitigate, a company called Voxility owns the internet infrastructure that allows the caching or proxy service to function, and after its role was pointed out on Twitter (by Alex Stamos, former director of security at Facebook, among others) the company said it had removed Bitmitigate from its service.

In some ways, the responsibility that social networks like Facebook and YouTube have for offensive content is more obvious than it is for a service provider like Cloudflare. Facebook and Twitter and Google not only help to distribute such content, but their content-promoting algorithms make sure plenty of people see it, which is an editorial function like the one newspapers used to fulfill. Cloudflare and similar hosting services are more like the power company, which operates the grid that keeps the lights on, or the phone network that connects users and allows them to call each other. Should the power company be deciding which companies or homes to supply electricity to? Should the phone company be cutting off users who choose to talk about offensive subjects using their network?

None of these analogies are totally accurate, but they help show why providers like Cloudflare have a difficult time removing services even from obvious online cesspools like 8chan, and why questions are often raised when payment processors like PayPal or Visa make it impossible to donate to certain entities (as they did with WikiLeaks). Do we want a utility provider to be making those kinds of decisions? And if not, then who does? And based on what criteria? These are the kinds of questions that 8chan — and the role it has played in mass shootings — have forced us to begin to grapple with.

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