Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Grey Fog of Moderating the Web

I’m not sure why, but the hottest topic right now in technology ethics seems to be Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and I’m already hearing the snoring of half of the people reading this post. This latest round of discussion was perhaps spurred by the ridiculous bill brought by Josh Hawley, which resulted in horrible articles in mainstream publications — one in the New York Times, and another in Bloomberg.

Moderation powers, more generally, have become newsworthy after Cloudflare dropped 8chan in the wake of revelations that the terrorist responsible for the two-hundred-ninety-first mass shooting of 2019 in the U.S. posted his manifesto on the discussion board. Jennings Brown of Gizmodo found this to be a symbolic and ineffectual gesture.

I think Ben Thompson’s take is well-rounded:

This third point is a valid concern, but one I, after long deliberation, ultimately reject. First, convenience matters. The truly committed may find 8chan when and if it pops up again, but there is real value in requiring that level of commitment in the first place, given said commitment is likely nurtured on 8chan itself. Second, I ultimately reject the idea that publishing on the Internet is a fundamental right. Stand on the street corner all you like, at least your terrible ideas will be limited by the physical world. The Internet, though, with its inherent ability to broadcast and congregate globally, is a fundamentally more dangerous medium. Third, that medium is by-and-large facilitated by third parties who have rights of their own. Running a website on a cloud service provider means piggy-backing off of your ISP, backbone providers, server providers, etc., and, if you are controversial, services like Cloudflare to protect you. It is magnanimous in a way for Cloudflare to commit to serving everyone, but at the end of the day Cloudflare does have a choice.

One nitpick I have with Thompson’s piece is that he compares Cloudflare’s decision to net neutrality:

To be perfectly clear, I would prefer that 8chan did not exist. At the same time, many of those arguing that 8chan should be erased from the Internet were insisting not too long ago that the U.S. needed to apply Title II regulation (i.e. net neutrality) to infrastructure companies to ensure they were not discriminating based on content. While Title II would not have applied to Cloudflare, it is worth keeping in mind that at some point or another nearly everyone reading this article has expressed concern about infrastructure companies making content decisions.

I see these as vastly different concerns. Internet service providers are utility providers. All of your web traffic from the same location goes through the same ISP, so it’s truly infrastructural. Cloudflare is entirely unlike that: it’s something that a web engineer can insert into the technology stack between their web host and incoming connections. It feels infrastructural, but it isn’t.

That nitpick aside, this is an excellent piece.