As the internet continues to evolve from its earlier days as an unregulated wild west, the big debates about what people should be allowed to see and do online has shifted away from major platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter to focus on the actions of a small group of tech companies.
These service providers operate under the radar to keep the engine of the internet running without the fanfare of their more recognizable counterparts. But for activists interested in eradicating toxic hate speech and harassment online, they have become the latest targets in an ongoing campaign.
Last week, the roving spotlight landed on a new player called Diamwall. Open to the public for only a month, the Portugal-based content delivery network (CDN) provider, which filters website traffic and blocks malicious requests, had been engaged by the notorious trolling and doxing website Kiwi Farms after it was dropped by its previous provider , Cloudflare.
It wasn’t long before Diamwall’s CEO, Hugo Carvalho, was explaining his decision to do the same in a blog post on the company website:
The owner of Kiwi Farms came in need of DDoS Protection and because their website was offline due to DDoS, we didn’t really know about their website’s content. They had a PROBLEM and we had the SOLUTION.
Soon enough the reports started to arrive and we started digging more and more about this website, soon enough we found that Kiwi Farms hosts a lot of revolting content.
We do not think that it is fair to terminate any service because of public pressure but in this case, we think there is some foundation behind all those requests and we really do not want to have anything to do with it.
An internet forum known for its active targeting and harassment of trans people, Kiwi Farms has also been blamed for suicides after people were hounded offline – and sometimes out of their homes – by a firehose of vitriol coordinated and directed from the site.
In August, users of the site targeted Canadian Twitch streamer and trans activist Clara Sorrenti, who fled Canada after Kiwi Farms users called in a fake bomb threat at her home and police turned up to her house. The Kiwi Farms trolls subsequently tracked her around the globe to continue their harassment of her.
The big tech platforms by now have stringent content moderation practices to prevent the proliferation of this kind of online behaviour, but as a standalone website Kiwi Farms is beyond their reach.
Instead of pleading her case to a regulatory body that doesn’t really exist, Sorrenti used her large online following to turn the tables, starting a “Drop Kiwi Farms” movement to get the site kicked off the internet by targeting the companies that kept them operational.
Cloudflare has borne the brunt of the attention over the past two months. As its name suggests, Cloudflare keeps websites online by offering cloud-based services, as well as protection against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that could take sites down. The company says it accounts for about 25% of websites on the internet as clients.
As the #dropkiwifarms hashtag trended, Cloudflare’s social accounts were inundated. The company initially tried to deflect responsibility for keeping Kiwi Farms operational in a move that mimicked the early attempts of the major social platforms to avoid content moderation. But in early September, Cloudflare ultimately backed down and stopped offering services to the site.
The company has made it clear that it took action begrudgingly. Cloudflare’s CEO, Matthew Prince, said in an interview with the Australian Financial Review in the aftermath that he did not want to be in the position of deciding what he could and could not appear on the internet. “You don’t want some random guy who lives in the United States picking what is and is not online,” he said. “I have no political legitimacy, right? At there.”
Prince has liked the company’s role to that of a telephone company, pointing out utilities don’t have the power to cut you off if they don’t like how you’re using them.
Since Cloudflare dropped Kiwi Farms, the activists have been playing whack-a-mole to keep the site offline. They sent letters to Diamwall explaining what Kiwi Farms was and arguing Diamwall should not be accepting its business – and provided templates for supporters to do the same. So far the strategy has been successful.
A spokesperson for the Communications Alliance – an Australian lobby group that represents not only digital platforms but also CDNs and internet service providers – says the extent to which private companies should be held responsible for online content is a global issue that has not yet been resolved.
“It’s a complex and evolving problem and, as is often the case, industry, regulators and government are awake to the challenges and looking to develop coordinated, effective responses.”
Prof Nicolas Suzor, at Queensland University of Technology’s digital media research centre, says companies like Cloudflare regularly make decisions about who they will take on as clients.
“I’ve heard complaints from sex workers and other groups [who] have a lot of trouble getting hosting with Cloudflare or with Google or AWS,” he says. “So I think it’s a little disingenuous sometimes for the cloud providers, the infrastructure providers to pretend like they don’t make these decisions all the time.”
Electronic Frontiers Australia chair, Justin Warren, says Cloudflare has “taken the conveniently naive view that a neutral position doesn’t favor either side, which is not true – the neutral position favors the dominant players in the situation”.
Warren says the notion of net neutrality holds that powerful bodies should not exercise power in capricious and arbitrary ways, and if Cloudflare sees itself as a utility, then there should be rules, and transparency in how those rules are enforced.
“If you participate in society, then there are those rights and obligations placed upon you as a condition of participation in society,” he says.
Suzor agrees, saying infrastructure providers will increasingly be expected to regulate the services they provide.
“Cloudflare has had at least four years of deep introspection, and they’ve done nothing to really put in place a better system. It’s not like one doesn’t exist,” he says.
“You can easily imagine different ways that you could make those decisions in a much more open, transparent, legitimate way, either within the company or by outsourcing them to mediation providers or other organisations.
“Set up a clear set of rules and follow them – it’s not that hard.”