Aafter weeks of activist pressure, internet infrastructure company Cloudflare recently ended its support for Kiwi Farms, an online group that is described as “the largest stalker community on the web.” Breaking Point: Targeted Harassment Campaign Against Trans Livestreamer and Activist So Cruel That caused his target to hide. Cloudflare provided essential technical infrastructure for the site’s security and speed, and with those things taken away, the Kiwi Farms site crashed.
But what should happen to sites like Kiwi Farms in the future? And what is the content moderation responsibility of companies like Cloudflare, which provide essential – usually invisible – services to most of the web? United States and EU are facing increased scrutiny over online privacy, safety and security this year, and some say service providers like Cloudflare must also take responsibility.
Fredrick Brennan is the founder of 8chan, a message board associated with hate speech, white supremacy, and nationalism. In 2019, six years after the message board was founded, a user of the site carried out a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, and posted his manifesto on 8chan. It was subsequently associated with several other shootings.
Brennan renounced his creation in the press and continued to advocate for action against image boards such as Kiwi Farms and the site he founded. Now 28, he is a software developer.
In this Q&A, adapted from two interviews with Brennan in September, he explains why the Internet needs to be more regulated in the US, like other industries, to address the issues raised by toxic sites.
It has been edited for length and clarity.
Were you surprised that Kiwi Farms was taken down by Cloudflare?
Fredrick Brennan: No, not really, especially because of who they targeted. I’m not surprised at all. I saw it as inevitable. Josh [Moon, the founder of Kiwi Farms] makes mistakes like this all the time. He is uncompromising when it comes to people he hates. Clearly he hates trans people and is on record as a believer in defamation against one of them.
A logical operator in his place simply wouldn’t want to get into that fight, and I think he wrongly assumed that Cloudflare would be behind him. I think his ideology is what makes him unable to see what is going to happen.
You have first-hand experience with these kinds of sites. Should Cloudflare’s action trigger something broader for companies that provide hosting, security, and other infrastructure for websites?
This is very strange. There’s really only one country where something like this crap site can exist, and that’s the United States due to the intersection of different laws. In various jurisdictions, this is simply not possible – even in places you would expect. Singapore for example? No, it’s impossible. Japan? No. This is the biggest problem because the United States is a broken democracy right now. You know, I’m American. I don’t mind saying it.
All social media are based in the US. Not because we Americans are uniquely good at doing these things. I work on free software and have worked with developers from every country and there is nothing special about our programming skills. There is nothing special about the American mind when it comes to creating web services. Everything is legal and corporate.
This is truly a legal arbitration where you have the least amount of trouble in the US. That’s why I really don’t know how to answer your question, because I don’t know if there’s any other world power that can do anything other than the United States. And I just don’t know how the United States can even begin to act on this because our system is so broken.
Our government in the United States has decided that on the international stage its technological superiority gives it a lot of power. And therefore market regulations are so low that they are essentially zero. So all the tech companies want – if not to have their corporate registrations here, which is usually the case – then to have all their infrastructure here.
Activists rallied against Cloudflare and called on the provider to shut down the site. The site now bounces between suppliers in Russia and Portugal in a cat-and-mouse game with activists launching retaliatory attacks. What is happening to kiwi farms now?
I think they are getting away with it so much that people are just going to keep dishing out this vigilante justice so [providers like Cloudflare] will take out. This is emblematic of the Wild West culture of the American Internet, where it is heavily based on vigilantism.
How does one break out of this vigilance-based system?
I don’t know if there is a good way. But I really think we’re going to see the emergence of something like a new system. I first started thinking about this after the Christchurch shooting, when the nations of Australia, New Zealand and some European countries blocked not only kiwi farms, but also 8kun, the 8chan website where the shooter posted his manifesto. It is fundamentally based on a concept of cyber sovereignty.
There is a shift in international norms where politicians are fed up with the United States and its complete lack of action. The internet will most likely become much more broken. And the websites you access will increasingly depend on the nation you’re in.
Is there a model to follow outside the US in terms of regulation? Is that even an option?
I hope. I think the UN should have some sort of agreement or framework on internet policy. Otherwise, total chaos will ensue, with each country deciding for itself, based on local laws, which websites are accessible.
What should we do now?
I think what we should be doing is what I’m doing, which is focusing mostly on administrators and whether they’re acting in good faith or in bad faith. This is mostly why I don’t tend to make it a speech problem most of the time – as a content problem in and of itself. I tend to ask about what the admins are thinking, why they allow certain content, what their processes are. And when it comes to the kiwi farms, their processes are terrible and they have done things that are literally extortion.
I think there should be stricter enforcement against what admins are doing. But there must also be regulation. In the same way that we have the FDA that monitors food and drugs and the SEC that monitors securities, you need a regulatory agency just for social media companies. And by the way, image boards like Kiwi Farms and 4chan are as much an IT company that this regulator can take action against as Facebook.
I’d like to see if that helps at all before we change fundamental things about free speech.
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