SAN FRANCISCO - First, it lost its internet security provider.
Then, another company cut off its new internet host.
In less than 24 hours, 8chan, the online forum that the suspect in the El Paso mass shooting allegedly used to post some of his extremist thoughts, was struggling to keep its lights on.
8chan’s situation highlights how the technology industry, long touting itself as proponents of free speech, has been reevaluating its approach to extremist content published by users.
There are few laws in the U.S. curtailing digital hate speech or incitement to violence online. Social media firms like Facebook, Google’s YouTube and Twitter now routinely revamp their rules and boost new efforts at moderating the content on their sites. Just last month, Twitter said it would use human moderators to evaluate if a post “dehumanizes others on the basis of religion.”
What happened to 8chan in the 24 hours after the El Paso shooting shows how smaller, lesser-known companies that control the pipes of the internet -- what sites get seen, whether online traffic is routed correctly and how websites are protected from cyberattacks -- are being pressured to set new limits, even though they do not interact directly with people posting content.
Typically, these infrastructure firms stand apart from the fray. If asked to do something about one of their customers, they often say they will respond to law enforcement and court orders. Short of that, it’s not their job to monitor what their customers do, they say.
But that is changing.
Changing views of responsibility
The 8chan example is about how tech companies are changing their views about their responsibility when it comes to extreme content, said Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
“For a long time, people said it's the responsibility of the poster,” Raicu said. “We have become more sophisticated about the roles that other players have.”
Still, the decision to shut down 8chan raises questions about what are the rules and the process for doing so.
“It shows the enormous power technical intermediaries have over who has a platform to speak and where can people access information,” says Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology.
This isn’t the first time that Cloudflare, which provides internet infrastructure security to many sites, has been under pressure about one of its customers. In 2017, it cut off the Daily Stormer, a popular white supremacist website that came to prominence after the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Daily Stormer found another cybersecurity firm.
Two other mass shooter suspects allegedly posted their own manifestos on 8chan prior to attacks. After news broke that the suspect in the El Paso shooting allegedly posted an anti-immigrant manifesto on 8chan, Cloudflare first said it wouldn’t cut off the site.
And then it did.
"We reluctantly tolerate content that we find reprehensible, but we draw the line at platforms that have demonstrated they directly inspire tragic events and are lawless by design,” Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s co-founder and chief executive, said. “8chan has crossed that line. It will therefore no longer be allowed to use our services."
Cloudflare’s decision led 8chan to find another service provider. But that company was then cut off by Voxility, which provides network hardware and services.
Even though some applauded Cloudflare’s decision, it’s unclear what standards the company used when it cut off 8chan, Llansó said.
“It opens up a large can of worms,” she added. “Ad hoc systems are most vulnerable to abuse. These types of decisions are too easy to make in a crisis moment.”
It’s a concern echoed by Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties organization, about internet infrastructure companies.
“Because these services may determine whether one can use the internet at all, those companies providing them must use their power on only very rare occasions, if at all,” Cohn said. “And if they do, they must do so only after careful consideration, applying predetermined and clear standards, that are free from governmental influence or coercion. Otherwise, we will be establishing a powerful tool for censorship that will inevitably be exploited by repressive governments and other powerful actors."
Cloudflare declined to comment for this story.
In the weeks ahead, it remains to be seen if 8chan will find another internet security firm and be back online.