The Terrifying Power of Internet Censors

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[Commentary] Generally speaking, there are two kinds of corporate players on the internet: companies that build infrastructure through which content flows, and companies that seek to curate content and create a community. Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast, domain name servers, web hosts and security services providers like Cloudflare are all the former — or the “pipe.” They typically don’t look at the content their clients and customers are putting up, they just give them the means to do it and let it flow.

Because of the precise nature of Cloudflare’s business, and the scarcity of competitors, its role censoring internet speech is not just new, it’s terrifying. What makes Cloudflare an essential part of the internet is its ability to block malicious traffic from barraging clients’ websites with requests that take them offline. Cloudflare is one of the few companies in the world that provide this kind of reliable protection. If you don’t want your website to get taken down by extortionists, jokers, political opposition or hackers, you have to hire Cloudflare or one of its very few competitors. Social media platforms like Facebook are the latter. They encourage their users to create, share and engage with content — so they look at content all the time and decide whether they want to allow hateful material like that of neo-Nazis to stay up. While there have long been worries about internet service providers favoring access to some content over others, there has been less concern about companies further along the pipeline holding an internet on/off switch. In large part, this is because at other points in the pipeline, users have choice.

Private companies can make their own rules, and consumers can choose among them. If GoDaddy won’t register your domain, you can go to Bluehost or thousands of other companies. But the fewer choices you have for the infrastructure you need to stay online, the more serious the consequences when companies refuse service.

[Kate Klonick is a lawyer and doctoral candidate at Yale Law School who studies law and technology.]

The Terrifying Power of Internet Censors