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Should Information Flows Be Controlled By The Internet Plumbers?

from the let-the-plumbers-focus-on-plumbing dept

Content moderation is a can of worms. For Internet infrastructure intermediaries, it’s a can of worms that they are particularly poorly positioned to tackle. And yet Internet infrastructure elements are increasingly being called on to moderate content—content they may have very little insight into as it passes through their systems. 

The vast majority of all content moderation happens on the “top” layer of the internet—such as social media and websites, places online that are the most visible to an average user. Platforms and applications moderate the content that gets posted on their platforms every day. If a post violates a platform’s terms of service, the post is usually blocked or taken down. If a user continues to post content that violates a platform’s terms, then the user’s account is often suspended. These types of content moderation practices are increasingly understood by average Internet users. 

Less often discussed or understood are the types of services facilitated via actors in the Internet ecosystem that both support and exist under the upper content layers of the Internet. 

Many of these companies host content, supply cloud services, register domain names, provide web security, and many more features of what could be described as the plumbing services of the Internet. But instead of water and sewage, the Internet deals in digital information. In theory, these “infrastructure intermediaries” could moderate content, but for reasons of convention, legitimacy, and practicality they don’t usually do it on purpose. 

However, some notable recent exemptions may be setting precedent.

Amazon Web Services removed Wikileaks from their system in 2010. Cloudflare kicked off the Daily Stormer. An Italian court ordered Cloudflare to remove a copyright infringing site. Amazon suspended hosting for Parler.

What does all this mean? Infrastructure may have the means to perform “content moderation,” but it is critical to consider the effects of this trend to prevent harming the Internet’s underlying architecture.

In principle, Internet service providers, registries, cloud providers and other infrastructure intermediaries should be agnostic to the content which passes over their systems. Their business models have nothing to do with whether one is sending text, audio or video. Instead, they are meant to act as neutral intermediaries, providing a reliable service. In a sense, they operate the plumbing system that delivers the water. While we might engage a plumber to inspect and repair our pumps, do we feel comfortable relying on the plumber to check the quality of the water every minute of every day? Should the plumber be able to shut off water access indefinitely with no oversight? 

Despite this, big companies have made decisions to moderate content that is clearly out of their scope as infrastructure intermediaries. It begs the question: why? Were these actions to uphold some sort of moral authority or primarily on the business grounds of public perception? How comfortable are we with these types of companies “regulating” content in the absence of—or even at the behest of—governmental regulation? 

If these companies add content moderation to their responsibilities, it takes away the time and resources they can dedicate to security, reliability, and new features, some of which may even help fight reasons for wanting to moderate content. And while large companies may have the means, it adds an additional role outside of their original purview or mission that would be costly or unattainable for most startups or smaller companies. 

As pressure mounts from public opinion, regulators, and courts, we should recognize what is happening and properly understand where problems can be best addressed and what problems we don’t know enough about to warrant messing with the plumbing of the Internet just yet. Moreover, we should be wary of any regulation which may turn to infrastructure intermediaries explicitly to moderate content. 

Asking an infrastructure intermediary to moderate content would be like asking the waiter to cook the meal, the pilot to repair the plane, or the police officer to serve as the judge. Even if it were possible, we must ask whether it is truly an acceptable approach. 

The Internet is often referred to as a layered architecture because it is comprised of different types of infrastructure and computer entities. Expecting them to each moderate content indiscriminately would be problematic. Who would they be accountable to? 

A core idea often proposed is that content moderation should occur at the highest available layer, closest to the user. Some even argue that content moderation below this, in the realm of infrastructure, is more problematic because these companies cannot easily moderate a single content item. Infrastructure needs to work at scale, and moderating a single piece of content may mean effectively turning off a water main to fix a dripping faucet. That is, infrastructure companies often have to paint with a broader brush by removing an entire user or an entity’s access to their service. 

These broad strokes of moderation are often deep and wide in their effect, and critics argue they go too far. Losing access to a system is clearly more final than having a single item removed from a system. 

Georgia Evans summarized the problem well, saying “the deeper into the stack a company is situated, the less precise and more extreme their actions against harmful content are.” For this reason, Corinne Cath refers to them as reluctant sheriffs and political gatekeepers. These are important complexities which must be woven into any understanding of deep-layer moderation by Internet infrastructure companies and policymakers. 

The tech community and policy makers must ensure that no policy proposals unintentionally require the plumber’s legal role to include quality assurance and access determination. In the realm of the Internet, certain actors have certain functions and things work in a modular, interoperable way by design. The beauty of the Internet is that no one company or entity must “do it all” to achieve a better Internet. But, we must also ensure that new demands for additional functionality—e.g., moderation—are situated at the right layer and target the party with the expertise and role most likely to do a careful job. 

Policymakers must consider the unintended impacts of content moderation proposals on infrastructure intermediaries. Legislating without due diligence to understand the impact on the unique role of these intermediaries could be detrimental to the success of the Internet, and an increasing portion of the global economy that relies on Internet infrastructure for daily life and work.

Conducting impact assessments prior to regulation is one way to mitigate the risks. The Internet Society created the Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit to help policymakers and communities assess the implications of change—whether those are policy interventions or new technologies. 

Policy changes that impact the different layers of the Internet are inevitable. But we must all ensure that these policies are well crafted and properly scoped to keep the Internet working and successful for everyone. 

Austin Ruckstuhl is a Project & Policy Advisor at the Internet Society where he works on Internet impact assessments, defending encryption and supporting Community Networks as access solutions.

Techdirt and EFF are collaborating on this Techdirt Greenhouse discussion. On October 6th from 9am to noon PT, we’ll have many of this series’ authors discussing and debating their pieces in front of a live virtual audience (register to attend here). On October 7th, we’ll be hosting a smaller workshop focused on coming up with concrete steps we can take to make sure providers, policymakers, and others understand the risks and challenges of infrastructure moderation, and how to respond to those risks.

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Comments on “Should Information Flows Be Controlled By The Internet Plumbers?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

At what number of simultaneous connection will it overload,10,100,1000? Just how many connections will your Internet connection support? To reach a larger audience you look at data centres with their better connections to the Internet backbone, along with the use of CDN services.

You could try going federated, but that runs into capacity problems when you federate with more than just a few sites. Keeping track of federated sites requires work, and the more you track, the more you outbound traffic is multiplied.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
William Null says:

Re: Re:

Good luck using a RaspPi for a site like Parler that has thousands of DAU, nevermind a streaming site. Proper server hardware, climate controlled server rooms (not to mention electric bills), costs money, money that startups like Parler may not have.

Ed (profile) says:

Apt analogy?

Asking "the pilot to repair the plane"…

Sometimes its more like asking the FedEx driver to carry a festering pile of excrement. When does the delivery driver finally say enough?

I mostly agree that infrastructure companies should not be in the business of content moderation. However, like most of these issues, things are not black-and-white but lie within a broad spectrum. Somewhere at the ends of that spectrum, refusal of service should be a viable option.

matthew.davids27 (profile) says:

what about spying?

Well, I don’t know about moderation, I’m more interested in the problem of spying on telegrams. Although it would seem… Who, but Telegram can be considered quite safe. But no, I recently came across this app: The most interesting thing is that it is made pretty well. And it seems to work. What do you think?

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