The Slope Gets More Slippery As You Expect Content Moderation To Happen At The Infrastructure Layer
from the sliding,-sliding dept
What a week the first week of January has been! As democracy and its institutions were tested in the United States, so were the Internet and its actors.
Following the invasion of the Capitol Hill by protesters, social media started taking action in what appeared to be a ripple effect: first, Twitter permanently suspended the account of the President of the United States, while Facebook and Instagram blocked his account indefinitely and, at least, through the end of his term; Snapchat followed by cutting access to the President’s account, and Amazon’s video-streaming platform Twitch took a similar action; YouTube announced that it would tighten its election fraud misinformation policy in a way that it would allow them to take immediate action against the President in the case of him posting misleading or false information. In the meantime, Apple also announced that it would kick off Parler, the social network favored by conservatives and extremists, from its app store on the basis that it was promoting violence associated with the integrity of the US institutions.
It is the decision of Amazon, however, to kick off Parler from its web hosting service that I want to turn to. Let me first make clear that if you are Amazon, this decision makes total sense from a business and public relations perspective – why would anyone want to be associated with anything that even remotely hinges on extremism? The decision also falls within Amazon’s permissible scope given that, under its terms of service, Amazon reserves the right to terminate users from their networks at their sole discretion. Similarly, from a societal point of view, Amazon may be seen as upholding most peoples’ values. But, I want to offer another perspective here. What about the Internet? What sort of a message does Amazon’s decision send to the Internet and everyone who is watching?
There are several actors participating in the way a message – whether an email, cat video, voice call, or web page – travels through the Internet. Each one of them might be considered an “intermediary” in the transmission of the message. Examples of Internet infrastructure intermediaries include Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), cloud hosting services, domain name registries, and registrars. These infrastructure actors are responsible for a bunch of different things, from managing network infrastructure, to providing access to users, and ensuring the delivery of content. These – mostly – private sector companies provide investment as well as reliability and upkeep of the services we all use.
In the broadcasting world, a carrier also controls the content that is being broadcast; with the Internet, however, an actor responsible for the delivery of infrastructure services (e.g., an Internet Service Provider or a cloud hosting provider) is unlikely or not expected to be aware of the content of the message they are carrying. They simply do not care about the content; it is not their job to care. Their one and only responsibility is to relay packets on the Internet to other destinations. Even if, for the sake of the argument, they were to care, at the end of the day, they are not the producers of the content. Like postal and telephone services, they have the essential role of carrying the underlying message efficiently.
Over the past year, the role and responsibility of intermediaries has been placed under the policy microscope. The focus is currently on user-generated content platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. In the United States, policy makers on both sides of the aisle have been considering anew the role of intermediaries in disseminating dis- and mis-information. Section 230, the law that has systematically, consistently and predictably shielded online platforms from liability over the content their users post, has been highly politicized and change now is almost inevitable. In Europe, after a year of intense debate, the newly released Digital Services Act has majorly upheld the long-standing intermediary liability regime, but, still, there are implementation details that could see some change (e.g, all of provisions on ‘trusted flaggers’).
It is the actions like the one that Amazon took against Parler, however, that go beyond issues of just speech and can set a precedent that could have an adverse effect on the Internet and its architecture. By denying cloud hosting services, Amazon is essentially taking Parler offline and denying its ability to operate, unless the platform can find another hosting service. This might be seen as a good thing, prima facie; at the end of the day, who wants such content to even exist, let alone circulate online? But, it does send a quite dangerous message: as infrastructure intermediaries can take action that cuts the problem from its root (i.e., getting a service completely offline), regulators might start looking at them to “police” the Internet. In such a scenario, infrastructure intermediaries would have to deploy content-blocking measures, including IP and protocol-based blocking, deep packet inspection (i.e., viewing content of “packets” as they move across the network), and URL and DNS-based blocking. Such measures ‘over-block’, imposing collateral damage on legal content and communications. They also interfere with the functioning of critical Internet systems, including the DNS, and compromise Internet security, integrity, and performance.
What Amazon did is not unprecedented. In 2017, Cloudflare took a similar action against the Daily Stormer website when it stopped answering DNS requests for their sites. At the time, Cloudflare said: “The rules and responsibilities for each of the organizations [participating in Internet] in regulating content are and should be different.” A few days later, in an op-ed, published at the Wall Street Journal, Cloudflare’s CEO, Matthew Prince said: “I helped kick a group of neo-Nazis off the internet last week, but since then I’ve wondered whether I made the right decision.[…] Did we meet the standard of due process in this case? I worry we didn’t. And at some level I’m not sure we ever could. It doesn’t sit right to have a private company, invisible but ubiquitous, making editorial decisions about what can and cannot be online. The pre-internet analogy would be if Ma Bell listened in on phone calls and could terminate your line if it didn’t like what you were talking about.”
Most likely Amazon faced the same dilemma; or, it might have not. One thing, however, is certain: so far, none of these actors appears to be considering the Internet and how some of their actions may affect its future and the way we all may end up experiencing it. It is becoming increasingly important that we start looking into the salient, yet extremely significant, differences between moderation happening by user-generated content platforms as opposed to moderation happening by infrastructure providers.
It is about time we make an attempt to understand how the Internet works. From where I am sitting, this past year has been less lonely and semi-normal because of the Internet. I want it to continue to function in a way that is effective; I want to continue seeing the networks interconnecting and infrastructure providers focusing on what they are supposed to be focusing on: providing reliable and consistent infrastructure services.
It is about time we show the Internet we care!
Dr. Konstantinos Komaitis is the Senior Director, Policy Strategy and Development at the Internet Society.