Internet Providers Should Not Be Arbiters of Online Speech

The Electronic Frontier Foundation:

So we were concerned when we started hearing from multiple sources that Hurricane Electric, a Tier 1 ISP, is interfering with traffic. Confirmation of the details has been difficult, in part because Hurricane itself has refused to respond to our queries, but it appears that the company is partially denying service to a direct customer, a provider called Crunchbits, in order to disrupt traffic to a site that is several steps away in the stack. And it is justifying that action because activity on the site reportedly violates Hurricane’s “acceptable use policy” — even though Hurricane has no direct relationship with that site. Hurricane argues that the policy requires its direct customers to police their customers as well as themselves.

If the site in question were Reddit, or Planned Parenthood, or even EFF, the internet would be up in arms. It is not, and it’s not hard to see why. The affected site is an almost universally despised forum for hateful speech and planning vicious attacks on vulnerable people: Kiwi Farms. For many, the natural response is to declare good riddance to bad rubbish — and understandably so.

Last year, Cloudflare halted service to Kiwi Farms after spending a considerable amount of time and goodwill defending itself for helping the forum with its security and speed, and I supported that decision. I still do. Cloudflare is not an internet service provider and, while popular, has many competitors across its business interests. It should be more selective about which websites it is willing to support technically, if in no other way.

But internet service providers are entirely different. They are utility providers and ought to maintain neutral about what material passes through their network. Be outraged by other levels of material support received by Kiwi Farms — I encourage it — but internet providers should not be in the moderation business. They are too busy figuring out how to be one of the most essential yet maddening things we all spend money on every month.

Update: In a Twitter thread, Alejandra Caraballo points out that the Kiwi Farms website is unique in that its owner operates its ISP. That is a subtly different argument, and one I think the EFF should have been clearer in making.