aWith the internet continuing to evolve from its earlier days as a disorganized Wild West, the big debates about what people should be allowed to see and do online have shifted away from major platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter To focus on the business of a small group of technology companies.
These service providers work under the radar to keep the internet engine running without the fuss of their more popular counterparts. But for activists interested in stamping out toxic hate speech and online harassment, 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 one month, the Portugal-based Content Delivery Network (CDN) provider, which filters website traffic and blocks malicious requests, has been involved in the popular phishing and defamation site Kiwi Farms after it was brought down by its previous provider, Cloudflare.
The owner of Kiwi Farms needed DDoS protection and because his website was offline due to DDoS, we didn’t really know what his website was about. They had a problem and we had the solution.
Soon reports started coming in and we started searching more and more about this site and soon we found that Kiwi Farms hosts a lot of disgusting content.
We don’t think it’s fair to terminate any service due to public pressure but in this case we think there’s basically something behind all these requests and we don’t really want to have anything to do with it.
The Kiwi Farms online forum is known for its active targeting and harassment of transgender people, and has also been blamed for suicides after people were chased offline – and sometimes out of their homes – by a coordinated and site-directed stinging hose.
In August, users of the Canadian Twitch Streamer targeted transgender activist Clara Sorrenti, who fled Canada after Kiwi Farms users called a fake bomb threat at her home and the police went to her home. The trolls of kiwi farms later followed her around the world to continue their harassment.
Big tech platforms now have strict content moderation practices in place to prevent this type of behavior from spreading online, but as a standalone website, Kiwi Farms is out of reach.
Instead of making her case to a regulatory body that doesn’t really exist, Sorrenti used her many online followers to turn the tables, starting the “Drop Kiwi Farms” movement to start the site online by targeting companies that kept it running.
Cloudflare has borne the brunt of the attention for the past two months. As its name suggests, Cloudflare keeps websites on the Internet by offering cloud-based services, as well as protecting against Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks that may disrupt sites. The company says it counts about 25% of websites on the Internet as customers.
With the spread of the hashtag #dropkiwifarms, Cloudflare’s social accounts are inundated. The company initially tried to dismiss responsibility for keeping Kiwi Farms running in a move that mimics early attempts by major social platforms to avoid content moderation. But in early September, Cloudflare finally backed down and stopped providing services to the site.
The company made it clear that it took action reluctantly. Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince said in an interview with the Australian Financial Review in the aftermath that he did not want to be in a position to decide what can and cannot appear online. “You don’t want a random person living in the US who picks what’s out and about,” he said. I don’t have political legitimacy, do I? Absolutely.”
Prince likened the company’s role to that of the phone company, noting that utilities don’t have the power to cut your business if you don’t like the way you use them.
Since Cloudflare brought down Kiwi farms, activists have been playing a whack-a-mole game to keep the site offline. They sent letters to Diamwall explaining what Kiwi Farms is and arguing that Diamwall should not accept its business – and provide models for its 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 – said the extent to which private companies must be held accountable for online content is a global problem that has yet to be resolved.
“It is a complex and evolving problem, and as is often the case, industry, regulators and government are aware of the challenges and are looking to develop coordinated and effective responses.”
Professor Nicholas Sozur, at Queensland University of Technology’s Center for Digital Media Research, says companies like Cloudflare regularly make decisions about who they will deal with as customers.
“I have heard complaints from sex workers and other groups [who] He has a lot of trouble getting hosting with Cloudflare or with Google or AWS.” “So I think it’s sometimes disingenuous for cloud providers and infrastructure providers to pretend they don’t make these decisions all the time.”
Justin Warren, president of Electronic Frontiers Australia, says Cloudflare “has taken the appropriately naive view that a neutral position favors neither side, which is not true – a neutral position favors the dominant players in the position”.
Warren says the idea of net neutrality dictates that powerful bodies should not exercise power in volatile and arbitrary ways, and if Cloudflare sees itself as a utility, there should be rules and transparency in how those rules are enforced.
“If you participate in society, there are those rights and obligations imposed on you as a condition of participation in society,” he says.
Suzor agrees, saying that infrastructure providers are increasingly expected to regulate the services they provide.
“Cloudflare has spent at least four years of deep introspection, and they’ve done nothing to really make a better system. It’s not like nobody exists,” he says.
“You can easily imagine different ways in which you can make these decisions in a more open, transparent and legitimate way, whether within the company or by outsourcing to brokerage service providers or other organizations.
“Set a clear set of rules and follow them – it’s not that hard.”