Content moderation is a can of worms. For Internet infrastructure intermediaries, it’s a can of worms that they are particularly poorly positioned to tackle. And yet Internet infrastructure elements are increasingly being called on to moderate content—content they may have very little insight into as it passes through their systems.
The vast majority of all content moderation happens on the “top” layer of the internet—such as social media and websites, places online that are the most visible to an average user. If a post violates a platform’s terms of service, the post is usually blocked or taken down. If a user continues to post content that violates a platform’s terms, then the user’s account is often suspended. These types of content moderation practices are increasingly understood by average Internet users.
Less often discussed or understood are the types of services facilitated via actors in the Internet ecosystem that both support and exist under the upper content layers of the Internet.
Many of these companies host content, supply cloud services, register domain names, provide web security, and many more features of what could be described as the plumbing services of the Internet. But instead of water and sewage, the Internet deals in digital information. In theory, these “infrastructure intermediaries” could moderate content, but for reasons of convention, legitimacy, and practicality they don’t usually do it on purpose.
However, some notable recent exemptions may be setting precedent.
Amazon Web Services removed Wikileaks from their system in 2010. Cloudflare kicked off the Daily Stormer. An Italian court ordered Cloudflare to remove a copyright infringing site. Amazon suspended hosting for Parler.
What does all this mean? Infrastructure may have the means to perform “content moderation,” but it is critical to consider the effects of this trend to prevent harming the Internet’s underlying architecture. In principle, Internet service providers, registries, cloud providers and other infrastructure intermediaries should be agnostic to the content which passes over their systems.
[...] Policymakers must consider the unintended impacts of content moderation proposals on infrastructure intermediaries. Legislating without due diligence to understand the impact on the unique role of these intermediaries could be detrimental to the success of the Internet, and an increasing portion of the global economy that relies on Internet infrastructure for daily life and work.
[...] Conducting impact assessments prior to regulation is one way to mitigate the risks. The Internet Society created the Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit to help policymakers and communities assess the implications of change—whether those are policy interventions or new technologies.
Policy changes that impact the different layers of the Internet are inevitable. But we must all ensure that these policies are well crafted and properly scoped to keep the Internet working and successful for everyone.
Austin Ruckstuhl is a Project & Policy Advisor at the Internet Society where he works on Internet impact assessments, defending encryption and supporting Community Networks as access solutions.
Should online content be controlled ? If yes, Is there a better way to censor online content and who should have the authority to do so ??