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Last Saturday morning, a gunman armed with an assault rifle walked into a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, and shot 22 people dead and injured 24 more. Shortly before he did so, a post by him appeared on the /pol/ [politically incorrect] message board of the far-right website 8chan. Attached to it was a four-page “manifesto”. The 8chan thread was quickly deleted by a site moderator (it was news to me that 8chan had moderators), but archived copies of it rapidly circulated on the internet.

“There is nothing new in this killer’s ramblings,” wrote one analyst who had read it. “He expresses fears of the same ‘replacement’ of white people that motivated the Christchurch shooter and notes that he was deeply motivated by that shooter’s manifesto.”

This was all par for the horrific course, especially the “manifesto” published just before the atrocity begins on a website guaranteed to find a sympathetic readership. Also significant is the way each manifesto links to an earlier one by another shooter. If you follow the trail all the way, you will find that the original inspiration was the screed published by Anders Behring Breivik, the far-right extremist who murdered 77 people in a bombing and mass shooting in Norway in 2011.

These links effectively undermine the myth that all of these murderers are “lone wolves”. They may not have been co-conspirators, but they are all subscribers to the same pernicious creed. And one of the functions of sites such as 8chan is to spread that particular gospel.

Which naturally leads to demands that 8chan and its ilk should be suppressed. This is about as realistic as demanding that the US should outlaw privately held firearms. 8chan exists because an earlier “imageboard” – 4chan – decided to outlaw certain kinds of content, so the dissidents created their own replacement.

Likewise, if 8chan were shut down today, a dozen replacements would materialise overnight and we’d wind up playing whack-a-mole. As Buzzfeed puts it: “The problem isn’t 8chan. It’s Americans.” So 8chan remains in being.

But in this case something interesting happened. Sites that host extremist content are themselves vulnerable to distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Anyone can go to the murkier regions of the internet and rent a botnet that will then overwhelm the target site with millions of pings. Easy as pie. And DDoS can be turned on and off like a tap. So if you run a controversial site you need protection against that kind of thing.

For 8chan, that protection was provided by Cloudflare, a service with the resources to ensure that sites can remain online no matter how severe a DDoS attack is. But on Monday, Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s CEO, pulled the plug. He announced that the company was terminating 8chan as a customer.

“The rationale is simple,” he wrote on the company’s blog. “They have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths. Even if 8chan may not have violated the letter of the law, in refusing to moderate their hate-filled community, they have created an environment that revels in violating its spirit.”

Prince clearly agonised over the decision, not because he was sympathetic to 8chan, but because he found himself wielding a kind of power that corporate executives are not prepared for. Remember that he wasn’t “censoring” 8chan or shutting it down: he was merely pushing it out into the lawless online world where it would be easy meat for anyone with sufficient technical nous and animus towards it.

In an interesting interview with the New York Times, Prince discussed the issues that trouble him. One is how did it happen that a tech CEO finds himself having to make these kinds of decisions? The other was: what kind of precedent does the termination of 8chan set? What if the Saudi government cites the 8chan example when asking Cloudflare to remove security protections for an LGBT group inside its borders? How would he push back against that?

But, in a way, it is the first question that is the most interesting: on what authority did Prince make his decision? The easy answer is that he’s the boss of a private company and is free to choose its customers. But even as I wrote that, a story from an earlier time came to mind. It’s the evening of 9 August 1974. In his Georgetown house in DC, Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post, is sitting with some others watching the TV coverage of disgraced President Richard Nixon leaving the White House for the last time, having been brought down by the Post’s reporting. After the helicopter had taken off from the South Lawn, the party sat in silence. And then Bradlee, contemplating the enormity of his paper’s achievement, asked quietly: “Who elected us?”

It was a good question then. And it’s an even better question now: who elected the tech bosses?

What I’m reading

A time for reflection
Should Facebook have a “quiet period” of no algorithm changes during critical elections? That’s the headline of a fascinating piece on the NiemanLab blog about the impact of Facebook’s pivot to “friends and family” in 2016.

Amazing Amazon
What is Amazon, really? Read Zack Kanter’s learned blog post about an astonishing company.

Two wheels bad
Are electric scooters polluters? Answer (predictably), yes – when you do a proper whole-system assessment. That’s the conclusion drawn in a sobering article in the Institute of Physics’s Environmental Research Letters.

Source: The Guardian

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