Beyond Network Neutrality
16 October 2017
Net neutrality is immensely important to keeping the Internet open for every voice and for ensuring that no ISP can curate what information its customers have access to. However, it’s not the only neutrality fight important to keeping the Internet alive. While net neutrality requires ISPs to provide access to the entire Internet and deliver every site equally, there are few neutrality requirements for online services themselves. As the world moves online and hosting services and social media become critical platforms for independent voices, there is no guarantee that those platforms will be neutral. With allegations around foreign interference via online platforms in the 2016 election and actions various cloud providers have occasionally taken to silence sites, the discussion of how online services can curate what their users see is building.
Hosting and social media platforms have a lot of editorial power when it comes to what’s on their platforms. Services like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Cloudflare, and others power large websites of all sorts of backgrounds. A recent AWS outage showed just how much of an impact AWS alone has on the Internet by bringing a huge number of sites down, including Netflix. Cloudflare, a different kind of service which promises certain security protections and performance improvements rather than hosting, provides services to nearly 4.3 million websites. All of these services have the ability to take entire services offline accidentally if they have an outage or intentionally if they decide to no longer do business with them.
This has happened already; Cloudflare dropped a neo-nazi website that relied on its services this year (followed by the site being forced to move its domain registration out of the U.S. and eventually being pushed off the Internet entirely). Cloudflare’s CEO later suggested that the move was perhaps unwise, but that it was well within the power of companies to take such actions. It’s easy to side with Cloudflare and indeed, many celebrated Cloudflare’s actions which snowballed into the site going offline. However, the action raises a tough question of what powers online services should have. While taking away a platform for hate speech may generally be accepted, whether online platforms should be able to make that determination and whether they should have the power to silence something is up for discussion. Cloudflare’s CEO voiced his own views on the issue which boil down to saying web companies shouldn’t do what Cloudflare did, but that he still supported the action.
The issue isn’t widespread as far as we know, but we see other censorship and targeting on a wide scale in other ways online. Interest targeting creates curated online worlds that vary from person to person. This is a widespread practice to keep users coming back and to improve the click rate of ads. Interest targeting isn’t necessarily malicious in intent as it’s primarily a side effect of algorithms designed to increase revenue. However, algorithms are not infallible. Even the most trusted of sites have had their services surface and promote entirely fake information, with Google promoting conspiracy theories and Facebook allegedly influencing such stories as they appear in its trending topics feature, where moderators allegedly suppressed conservative stories.
Even if ISPs are required to be neutral carriers of data, curation of content by online services poses a problem. If the whole Internet forces something offline, it doesn’t matter how neutral your ISP is. In some ways, it’s more insidious because of how invisible and defensible it can be. GoDaddy, for example, dropped the aforementioned neo-nazi site explaining that the site was violating their terms of service, followed by Google with the same explanation. It takes very little to make a site disappear - simply dropping it to the second or third page of search results hurts a site tremendously, as 90% of people using Google don’t venture past the first page. If the right online services take issue with you, your voice can disappear and there’s not much you can do about it, if you even know what’s happening.