M-Theory: Who decides what is allowed on the Internet? Melanie Baker August 31, 2017 Columns, Communitech, Featured, M-Theory “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That quotation was actually written by Voltaire’s 19th century biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, not by the man himself. Neither of them had to contend with the Internet. I would love to say I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, but I can’t. “Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet.” That quote is from Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince a couple weeks ago, after the company terminated the account of neo-Nazi clients who publish The Daily Stormer. Prince elaborated further in an informative post on the Cloudflare blog, admitting the action was “dangerous.” The rest of that quote is: “No one should have that power.” I have that power, to some degree. I work for a domain registrar similar to GoDaddy, Google Domains, and Namecheap, all of which terminated The Daily Stormer’s service and required its admins to move their domain to a new registrar. (Blanket note: I’ll be simplifying some very complex stuff here, and I am also not a lawyer. Any errors are mine.) Registrars, as the name would imply, register domain names for customers. They also connect domains to hosting services where website content or email resides. We can add or remove the required records for those connections, or suspend domains so they don’t resolve online at all. To a considerable degree, we can enable or prevent people from communicating on the Internet. It’s not just Internet providers that have gotten involved in banning The Daily Stormer and related groups or denying them services. There’s a running list here. Per many companies’ terms, doing business with you is at their discretion and service can be terminated at any time for any reason. Sometimes application of these terms gets political. The Internet is not a democracy, and never has been. They keys to the kingdom reside in remarkably few hands. But most people don’t tend to worry too much about that as long as they can post to Instagram. At work my coworkers and I remind ourselves: “We don’t care about content.” Meaning: we don’t provide hosting, so aren’t responsible for what’s on a website or email. Our opinions are not relevant here. For us to take down a domain (and, by extension, its website) typically requires specific orders from ICANN – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – or a registry or a court order. It doesn’t happen often, and is more likely to take place in a case of copyright or trademark infringement than hate speech. Sometimes, though, I would really like to do it anyway. It gets more complicated given that companies are bound by the laws of where they’re registered/located, but most people’s web presences are global. Recently we had customer complaint regarding a site’s content. The situation involved the United Kingdom, United States, New Zealand, and Canada. The Internet is still the wild west in many ways. (We couldn’t do anything.) There isn’t a separate set of laws or a police force just for the Internet. Maybe one day, but regulation runs waaaay behind innovation. And remember the “series of tubes” guy, former U.S. senator Ted Stevens? Yeah, as often as not, that’s who’s drafting the legislation … Certain content may be objectionable to many, but is it actually illegal? Something like The Daily Stormer could not exist in Germany (or be hosted by a German company). It’s completely illegal. But the site resided with American company GoDaddy for some time. There are some very nasty people out there, and some days you really just want to get rid of them. No more hate speech; no more suspected criminal activities; no more threats or insults. Just … gone. Who could argue with that, right? Well, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, for one. It agrees with Mr. Prince that “no one should have that power.” And that nuking Nazis today is potentially a slippery slope. Because guess what, not everyone agrees with Mr. Prince. Or me. Or you. Tomorrow the person with the power to silence any given group might really dislike the Black Lives Matter movement, or Indigenous rights groups. Or LGBTQ+ people, or women, or …. You see where this could go. “Yeah, but they’re Nazis!” I know, but … humans are incredibly messy, and you’re never going to get 100% consensus on what is legally, morally, or ethically okay to say or do. Doesn’t matter if it’s online or off. Some days that really sucks. Can you imagine “defending to the death” a Nazi’s right to free speech? I can’t. Which is why these things can’t be handled ad hoc, reactively, or when in crisis mode. Tensions, emotions, and media attention are too high. (This goes for companies and our legal systems.) What finally prompted Prince to act: “The thing that ultimately upset me was that on their forums, they were saying ‘Hey CloudFlare is one of us,’ which we aren’t,” Prince said. “So I got tired of it and pulled the plug.” You never know what, where, or when that last straw will be. Which is why companies need to do their best to craft policies and procedures to issues like this at a time other than in the midst of social upheaval or media scrutiny. Companies need to mitigate the risk of panic or knee-jerk decisions. What is considered to be a violation of terms of service? How do you get a second opinion? If a violation is identified, what are the steps and who needs to be notified? What are the potential legal, customer base, or media coverage ramifications of action (or inaction)? No matter how thorough you try to be, you can’t cover every possible scenario. But a framework is a good place to start. It will enable you to adapt faster and smarter, better manage your emotional reactions, and require you to challenge yourself even when you don’t want to. (It could even end up being your company’s policies you object to ….) There will be customers you don’t like, and days when policy and procedure just don’t seem like enough. Just let me nuke this ONE …. There may even be cases where a bad customer isn’t the biggest problem and you disagree with your company’s stance strongly enough to quit. Best to be prepared and know you can always do something, and at least it won’t require fighting anyone to the death. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo: The Big Red Button, by wlodi, is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.