Over the past two weeks, a host of internet infrastructure providers have withdrawn service from websites associated with or used by the far-right. Parler, a Twitter alternative popular among Trump supporters, was quickly removed from the Apple and Google app stores before being dropped by its web host, Amazon. This decision knocked Parler’s website offline and prompted a new wave of concerns about the power of technology companies to curtail speech. While infrastructural deplatforming is not unprecedented, the current cascade of refusals is broader and more politically salient than past episodes. The moment seems right to assess how deplatforming by infrastructure providers has shaped the internet’s development in the past.
Traditionally, we think of content moderation as happening on the edge layer of the internet. Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube bans a user, and they must find another platform. Sometimes, however, services deeper in “the stack” of technologies that make up the internet bar higher level intermediaries from using their tools. These decisions affect entire platforms rather than specific users. In some cases, there are few alternatives to these lower-stack services. After being dropped by Amazon, Parler was reportedly denied service by six other hosting firms. Parler has since returned online as a blog via domain registrar Epik and Russian content delivery service DDos-Guard but has not found a permanent hosting solution.
By constraining alternative platforms, decisions by infrastructure providers magnify the effect of moderation by edge providers. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey expressed frustration with this situation in a Twitter thread that is worth quoting at greater length.
"The check and accountability on [Twitter’s] power has always been the fact that a service like Twitter is one small part of the larger public conversation happening across the internet. If folks do not agree with our rules and enforcement, they can simply go to another internet service. This concept was challenged last week when a number of foundational internet tool providers also decided not to host what they found dangerous. I do not believe this was coordinated. More likely: companies came to their own conclusions or were emboldened by the actions of others. This moment in time might call for this dynamic, but over the long term it will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet."
While similar decisions have threatened the open internet in the past, they have prompted innovations to make the internet more resistant to censorship. There is no lost golden age of internet freedom. Increasing adoption has always brought new challenges, gatekeeping demands, and waves of exit from more strictly governed spaces. Parler’s deplatforming has drawn new attention to the importance of speech hosting infrastructure and will prompt the creation of new decentralized or alternative means of publishing speech online.
In December 2010, after releasing a slew of stolen American diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks was deplatformed by its domain registrar as well as its web host, a then-much-smaller Amazon Web Services. Even WikiLeaks’ data visualization provider withdrew service after prodding from Sen. Joe Lieberman. The AP reported that Amazon faced political pressure to cease hosting Wikileaks, while the company cited the threat of harm stemming from the cables’ release.
“Amazon booted the site on Wednesday after U.S. Congressional staffers started asking the company about its relationship to WikiLeaks. The company later said it ousted WikiLeaks because WikiLeaks doesn't own its content and Amazon claimed it could be endangering innocent people by publishing unredacted material.”
Wikileaks quickly moved to a Swedish web host and a Swiss domain name service, tweeting “WikiLeaks servers at Amazon ousted. Free speech the land of the free--fine our $ are now spent to employ people in Europe." At WikiLeaks.ch, the organization could avoid American priorities. Wikileaks has since regained a .com domain through French DNS Ghandi SAS.
However, Wikileaks found it more difficult to avoid deplatforming by major financial institutions. Bank of America, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal, and Western Union all prohibited donations to the organization, effectively cutting off it's funding. While separate from the infrastructure that carries speech, few organized political efforts can survive without finance.
Decentralized financial infrastructure has since provided an alternative to financial intermediaries. In the days before Bitcoin, these institutions were an unavoidable chokepoint. In a 2010 forum post, Bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator Satoshi Nakamato cautioned Wikileaks against using the network to circumvent banking bans. He argued that Bitcoin would be crushed if it were thrust into the limelight as a means of circumventing financial intermediaries before being widely adopted.
“The project needs to grow gradually so the software can be strengthened along the way. I make this appeal to WikiLeaks not to try to use Bitcoin. Bitcoin is a small beta community in its infancy. You would not stand to get more than pocket change, and the heat you would bring would likely destroy us at this stage."
Despite this warning, Wikileaks began accepting Bitcoin in June 2011. As a result of this early adoption, over the past decade the organization received donations worth several hundred million dollars at current prices.
If we include deplatformings by financial infrastructure providers, our list of examples balloons. Financial deplatforming was the lynchpin of Operation Chokepoint, a 2013 Department of Justice effort to discourage banks from serving politically disfavored industries. Unlike private decisions, even decisions by dominant firms, government deplatforming efforts are more prohibitive of speech because they prevent new market entrants and niche providers from serving speakers unwanted elsewhere.
Private financial deplatforming decisions are widely accepted in other contexts. As recently as December an article by Nicholas Kristoff prompted MasterCard, Visa, and Discover to halt payment processing for PornHub, which responded by removing all unverified user-submitted content from its website. While most lauded this decision as an example of responsible corporate citizenship, a trio of banks effected a sweeping policy change overnight.
To some extent, the current wave of deep deplatformings has been received differently than past incidents because they affect groups with different theories of the internet. Cypherpunk supporters of Julian Assange assumed that governments and corporations would conspire against them, necessitating technical rather than legal solutions. American conservatives increasingly articulate a right to use certain internet services as public squares governed by the First Amendment. While this demand is foreclosed by both the First Amendment itself and Section 230, this statute’s intermediary liability protections have proven critical to right-wing alt-tech efforts.
Gab launched in 2017 as a haven for those excluded by mainstream social media’s then more light-touch rules. This anything-goes alternative platform first faced pressure from its infrastructure providers a few months after its launch. Gab deferred to its registrar’s demand that it ban white nationalist hacker Weev after he published anti-Semitic threats on the platform. In August, Google banned the app from its Play Store.
In October 2017, Robert Bowers used the platform to post “HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in,” minutes before murdering eleven congregants at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue. Taking the incident as evidence of the Gab’s broader failure to remove fascistic and anti-Semitic speech, its web host, domain registrar, and payment processors withdrew service from the platform.
After a week offline, Gab returned to the internet via domain registrar and web host Epik, which increasingly serves as a provider of last resort for right-wing websites. Gab’s return prompted a legally-and- constitutionally-dubious investigation of Epik by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. As a matter of law, neither Gab’s previous registrar, GoDaddy, or Epik, were liable for its users’ content.
Gab began accepting cryptocurrency payments from a now much more mature decentralized finance ecosystem, though not without some initial hiccups. By 2018, many cryptocurrency users relied on third-party Bitcoin wallets and exchanges to secure and trade their permissionless money. While convenient and potentially more secure than self-storage, this reintroduction of intermediaries reintroduced opportunities for regulation. Cryptocurrency exchange CoinBase removed Gab’s account, though it quickly found a more friendly exchange.
In 2019 Gab adopted a forked version of Mastodon, a decentralized social media protocol, to evade app store bans. Because Mastodon can be accessed through many different client apps, Apple and Google were left with the choice of blocking popular Mastodon clients such as Tootdon or Fedilab, or leaving Gab accessible. However, most other Mastodon instances disassociated from Gab’s network, quarantining it away from the rest of Mastodon’s “Fediverse” of independent servers. Most Gab users simply continued accessing the site through their browsers, and Gab ended their decentralized experiment with little fanfare in mid-2020.
For those driven to the decentralized web by legal changes, the move has been more permanent. Signed into law in 2017, SESTA/FOSTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, altered Section 230 to render intermediaries liable for users’ promotion of prostitution or sex trafficking. While prostitution is illegal in the United States, sex workers had long used the internet to screen clients. Under SESTA, they were dropped by most platforms and infrastructure providers. Fearing liability, Craigslist shuttered its personal ads page.
Some sex workers responded by establishing a Mastodon instance called Switter. Based in Australia, Switter was intended to be “a sex work-friendly social space” not reliant on liability-averse corporations. However, while Switter runs on its own servers, its network relied on Cloudflare for protection against hacking and distributed denial of service attacks. Cloudflare’s services were recognized as an important speech chokepoint after its cessation of service knocked the Daily Stormer offline (the site has since returned to the internet via the old Soviet .su domain). Under SESTA, Cloudflare could be responsible for the promotion of prostitution on Switter, so it served ties with the instance, knocking it offline until it found a content delivery service beyond the reach of American law.
In conversation with a reporter, Cloudflare’s general counsel Doug Kramer explained, “We tried in this circumstance to get a law that would make sense for infrastructure companies . . . Congress didn’t do the hard work of understanding how the internet works and how this law should be crafted to pursue its goals without unintended consequences.” Future efforts to amend Section 230 must remain aware that it protects infrastructure providers as well as edge platforms. Frustration with edge-layer moderation must not prompt reforms that undermine the viability of alternatives by exposing infrastructure providers to liability for downstream content.
Gab CEO Andrew Torba claims the platform has gained 3 million new users since the Capitol riot. While an intense focus on Parler has made it something of a scapegoat for violence that was planned across a host of platforms, many other services have recoiled from right-wing websites over the past two weeks. While some, such as the dissident subreddit thedonald.win, hosted content posted rioters throughout the incursion, others such as AR15.com were much more tangentially involved. Expecting sites and communities to police extremism perfectly will push innocent speech, and speakers, into seedy spaces.
Most recently banned sites have moved to Epik. Because it now provides domain registration services to Gab, Parler, thedonald.win, AR15.com, and oathkeepers.org, pressure previously applied to a range of providers will be concentrated on Epik. As a matter of law, Section 230 protects Epik’s decision to offer these sites service. Perhaps ICANN, the historically quasi-governmental Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, will face demands to withdraw Epik’s accreditation as a domain name registrar. Although the National Telecommunications and Information Administration no longer oversees ICANN, its intercession to prevent Epik’s provision of domain registrations would be dangerous and unprecedented.
In the cases of both WikiLeaks and Gab, some government officials applied informal pressure to current and potential infrastructure providers, likely violating the First Amendment. Legal threats and impositions of liability on infrastructure providers establish more lasting barriers to speech than private withdrawals of service. Efforts by government officials to ‘jawbone’ intermediaries must be appreciated as aberrant and illegal, not simply a normal part of public pressure campaigns.
While decentralized finance has proven capable of circumventing deplatforming by mainstream financial intermediaries, deplatformed websites have thus far relied on alternative providers of traditional publishing infrastructure, not decentralized protocols. In practice, they have simply been easier to use, and available to most disfavored speakers. Nevertheless, even speech-friendly publishing chokepoints will attract censorship requests. Last year I wrote about how decentralized infrastructure might replace what have become focal points for intense partisan conflict. In the long run, the further development of permissionless publishing infrastructure will prove a more enduring check on censorship than reliance on friendly or foreign providers.