Outsourcing Censorship

There’s been some noise on social media over the last few days about Gab, the alternative to Twitter where anything goes, having its domain name rescinded:

This letter came a few days after Gab announced it was going to sue Google for some reason, and skeptics are saying it may well all be a publicity stunt by the Gab founder, who I understand is notorious for attention-seeking.

Whatever the case may be, the letter supports something The ZMan has been banging on about for a while now. He argues that in order to get around laws guaranteeing free speech, governments have taken to leaning on social network providers – Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. – to enforce “community guidelines” which purport to outlaw hate speech to protect people, but in practice are used to silence any subscriber who is saying things they don’t like. The government can then hold their hands up in all innocence and say “nothing to do with us, these are the decisions of private companies”. On the evidence I’ve seen, I find ZMan’s argument convincing.

When Twitter started banning people for having unwelcome opinions, the founders of Gab saw a gap in the market and started their own version. Both Apple and Google have refused to approve a Gab app until they can ensure nothing which constitutes discriminatory language will be posted, which defeats the whole purpose. Now it appears someone has gone after Gab’s domain registration, probably having seen other right-wing sites get their registrations pulled in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

So far it’s an effective tactic. If the tech giants and domain registrars are the gateway to 99% of communication, denying somebody access is the equivalent of banning them from speaking. I don’t buy the argument that this is purely a private matter between companies and their customers: corporations which enjoy monopoly positions and dominant market share are forever being hauled into courts on anti-trust charges, all in the name of consumer protection (and filling the coffers of cash-strapped governments). And I’d be more convinced governments were concerned about the situation were they not rubbing their hands with glee, Theresa May being the main culprit:

Technology companies must go “further and faster” in removing extremist content, Theresa May is to tell the United Nations general assembly.

The prime minister will also host a meeting with other world leaders and Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter.

She will challenge social networks and search engines to find fixes to take down terrorist material in two hours.

This meddling, useless former head-girl never passes up an opportunity to push for restrictions to the internet or powers to snoop on people’s electronic communications. She’s obsessed with it, and the sooner she’s booted from office the better. Of course, the effect of May’s lecturing is that tech companies will double-up what they’re already doing: pulling down posts and articles willy-nilly if they contain a single word which might upset this year’s designated victim class, yet the stuff calling for shooting cops, punching Nazis, and the destruction of Israel and the west stays up. And if a load of right-wing writers, bloggers, and commentators get caught up in the sweep? Well, that’s a feature, not a bug.

My guess is people will slowly start shifting their domain registrations to countries where companies can’t be leaned on so easily, namely Russia. Not that Russia is a bastion of free speech but they have the advantage of being beyond the west’s reach and quite happy to see people bashing them from its territory. They also couldn’t care less about discrimination on the basis of race, religion, etc. I don’t know what it takes to set up a .ru domain, but I’m sure enterprising Russians will spot a gap in the market if dozens of popular sites are being thrown off the internet by their domain registrars.

If you drive people away, they’ll seek shelter wherever they can find it. They will then start defending those who provide it, and refrain from criticism. Anyone who has seen their website disappear from the internet after receiving a weaselly-worded letter like the one above and sets up in Russia isn’t going to spend much time complaining about the Russian government. I know I wouldn’t. Frankly, if I got booted off here and a Russian outfit was able to host me solely because Russia was beyond the reach of what is effectively western government censorship, I wouldn’t give two hoots who they were flogging advanced weaponry to, or whose elections they supposedly rigged. If you’re silenced in your own country, you’re not going to be too fussy who you make friends with. Freedom of expression is something people take very, very personally.

Of course, should unapproved opinions start popping up on websites hosted in countries like Russia, the next step for western governments would be to force ISPs to restrict access to them. You can imagine authoritarian harridans like May rubbing her hands with glee at the prospect of that. I expect we’d then see calls to regulate ISPs like utilities, but the way we’re going we’re more likely to see people having their gas and electricity cut off for having the wrong opinions than the government allowing them to say what they like on the internet.

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34 thoughts on “Outsourcing Censorship

  1. This is the poison of Cameron’s ‘nudge’ politics, hijacked by those groups who would otherwise never have a chance at this sort of power by votes.

    Of course it all has to go somewhere, free speech is the pressure valve that allows democracy to work. Without it, the result will be more than a Trump or Brexit, but a full on revolution.

  2. This is the poison of Cameron’s ‘nudge’ politics, hijacked by those groups who would otherwise never have a chance at this sort of power by votes.

    Exactly, and sensible people warned of this at the time.

    Of course it all has to go somewhere, free speech is the pressure valve that allows democracy to work. Without it, the result will be more than a Trump or Brexit, but a full on revolution.

    Yup. Is it better to have people speaking freely at home than plotting abroad under the protection of a regime that doesn’t like you.

  3. This is a really interesting analysis.

    I’d look to publish this elsewhere- I’m sure there’s a large number of places who’d be interested, most of them outside the political blog bubble

  4. Russia has had its own censorship laws since 2012, if I remember correctly. Of course they are not called censorship – the Constitution says censorship is not allowed, Putin is a law grad and Medvedev a law prof – but protection of the public against extremism, of children against everything, of ethnosocial groups against being insulted, etc. etc. Facebook cooperates with the Kremlin and removes “offensive” posts readily.

    Theresa May has always acted like she has no principles whatsoever. She was quite fond of censorship as home secretary. Now she’s playing right into the hands of the Chinese firewall keepers and the Russian net restrictionists. I’m hoping that decentralized communications will make censorship futile but in the meantime, Facebook et al. will expand their censorship operations.

  5. Russia has had its own censorship laws since 2012,

    Oh, absolutely. But I suspect what they’re censoring differs from what the US and UK wishes to censor.

    Facebook cooperates with the Kremlin and removes “offensive” posts readily.

    That doesn’t surprise me either.

    Theresa May has always acted like she has no principles whatsoever.

    Yup.

  6. This is a really interesting analysis.

    Thanks!

    I’d look to publish this elsewhere

    I’d like to do that…

  7. I’m not sure what Facebook and Twitter think they’re going to gain, in the longer run. This is just going to get people to look at other places to hang out as alternatives, like Gab or Mastodon. And the result of that is the lowering of the value of their networks.

    I do wonder a little if these companies are just at the point of having peaked, and when that happens in tech, the more mainstream middle class start moving in. People who aren’t seeking adventure and excitement, but instead people looking for power, grabbing the gains after someone else’s work.

  8. May is one of those politicians whose motives I find difficult to fathom.
    There are politicians who are in it for the money, the fame, the status, ego, the love of manipulation, the belief (if only in their own mind) that it’s what they are good at or, in the backwaters, for a quiet cushy life.
    A few even have convictions and I think I once spotted one who wanted to benefit other people.

    None of these seems to be particularly true of May as far as I can see – certainly not the conviction.
    The odd pair of eccentric shoes surely doesn’t make her enough of an attention-seeker to want to put up with all the years of dullness, slog and grief.
    I don’t get it.

  9. None of these seems to be particularly true of May as far as I can see – certainly not the conviction.

    For me it’s the ego of being in senior positions for their own sake, and a desire to nag everyone else. Both are consistent with her being Prime Minister and head girl.

  10. Theresa ‘Reprehensible’ May should stand as the classic ‘I swing with the wind’ example of modern politics. She was against, but now she is for, leaving the EU.

    However she was all for the Muz in her dreadful time as Home Secretary but has yet to be against the Muz no matter what they do to Britain, though possibly no politician dares be against a possible 2-to-3 per cent of the popular vote. Seats have been lost on less than that, they say.

    In other news, censorship ultimately drives people away from recognised channels of information and makes them create their own ‘underground’ sources. They say the first casualty of war is truth and as we are at war (yes, really we are when you have armed cops in shopping centres as one example of the readiness to skirmish) then the truth of reality about anything was shot in the back of the head a long time ago.

  11. I think it was quite appropriate that the UK PM raised the issue of thought crime in this super state forum. And Obama gave away ICANN, surely this must mean something.

    And yes, they are at it, Google is now the biggest lobbyist in Washington with a spend rate in the $20m’s. It is the biggest but it doesn’t really seem that much to me. But it is an awful lot of money when you consider the size of Goggle, which is a relative minnow on the big company stakes so yes Big Data is here to stay.

    And as to Tim’s point, its just the new “revolving door” of the digital age with that murky interchangeability between plush appointment in state and corporate sector and vice versa. Thus “consensus” on hate speech is quite easily achieved with a smattering of loads on money chucked in for good measure.

    So what can we do, our executive directors where I work use Wiki, we kind of feel safe to discuss who needs to be sacked, what pricing information is out there and things like that, the messages disappear and it has a cool “shred it now “button. But seriously I don’t think out sensitive communication is that important and I personally don’t believe that some fucker isn’t storing it to be used in evidence against me later on anyway. My CEO stopped taking his smart phone into meetings in the Mid-East about five years ago.

    I have also found the dark web to be a complete bore, but I don’t want to take out a contract on people either, as for high class hookers and cocaine well you can get that on craigslist anyway, so yes the darkweb.sucks.

    Is Google Working with Liberal Groups to Snuff Out Conservative Websites?

    https://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2017/08/19/propublica-working-google-document-hate-threatens-conservative-bloggers/?print=true&singlepage=true

  12. @Tim – “Oh, absolutely. But I suspect what they’re censoring differs from what the US and UK wishes to censor.”

    Very true. Take the legendary Alexander Solzhenitsyn, unquestionably one of the greatest writers of his time, this guy was a capitalist dream, anything he wrote was bound to be an international bestseller. The Russians loved him as well Putin even dictated that the Gulag Archipelago should become part of the Russian school kids reading curriculum.

    Then he wrote his last book “200 Years Together” and we never heard of him again in the West. This book has never been officially translated in English, never mind published, even though it would have been guaranteed to be a best seller if it were. You can read it online but there are still some chapters that have not been translated into English, well maybe they are now, but not when I first looked at it.

  13. Nobody really wants true freedom of speech, because that means unfettered access to kiddie porn.

    Once that exception was set, it was only a matter of time before the bar for freedom of speech moved ever farther towards normal political discourse. This isn’t a left-right issue; when right-wing governments are in charge they want just as much control over the Internet as left-wing, they just focus on different things to ban.

    I can’t really blame Asia Registry for this any more than I could blame a Canadian company for cutting off a blog that criticized the pro-transgender movement. In both cases, they’re protecting themselves from a government that will put them entirely out of business for enabling a single web site.

    In any event, central control of the domain name registry system is really more of a convenience and a way to prevent namespace collisions, accidental or otherwise. It would be the work of moments to set up one’s own DNSSEC server with one’s own top-level domains (.freedom, perhaps) and advertise the public IP address. Given time, I expect someone will leverage the blockchain for this.

  14. In any event, central control of the domain name registry system is really more of a convenience and a way to prevent namespace collisions, accidental or otherwise. It would be the work of moments to set up one’s own DNSSEC server with one’s own top-level domains (.freedom, perhaps) and advertise the public IP address.

    It’s not going to work that way with current infrastructure without a good deal of tweaking. As it stands today, you have to get your top level domain (.freedom) in the internet root servers for arbitrary resolution to work. What might well work is to spend some $$$ on the .freedom tld and then set up your own registrar for it as many countries do. You can of course let godaddy & co resell your domains but you can also allow direct registration.

    (of course you also have to host your top level name servers so you’ll need a hosting provider or three (and / or your own data centers and peering links) and either get your own anycast address space to do so or glom onto someone else’s and so on)

    Given time, I expect someone will leverage the blockchain for this.

    Registrars are a big problem with the current DNS system and the world would probably do better without them and with a blockchain like system instead. I suspect it would be possible to that for all domains registered in a particular TLD but work would need to take place to ensure that registrations could expire and people didn’t abuse other people’s trademarks etc.

    That’s the sort of thing registrars are supposed to do. Having said that in THEORY registrars ought to help block a bunch of interesting frauds such as the typosquatting BEC but they mostly don’t. I find it interesting they seem much more concerned about “far right” hate speech than whether they are enabling a bunch of Nigerians, E Europeans and Chinese to defraud other people. Possibly because (until the chargeback hits them) they get lots of money from the fraudsters because the fraudsters register hundreds of domains not just one or two like the neo-nazis.

  15. @Francis – “coincidentally I blogged about the exact same thing today”

    Just read it a very good blog thanks. I wont unfriend you now. I just tried to find the Daily Stormer web site I think it is hosted in Iceland now? but couldn’t get it on there or the dark web either. Where is it, do you know, I gotta see it.

    I seen this gem when looking for it about Black Supremacists, Google “happy american family” images.

    It’s high time that Britain invaded Iceland again.

  16. Nobody really wants true freedom of speech, because that means unfettered access to kiddie porn.

    I understand you’re talking theoretically, but even in some kind of abstract idea-space, I don’t think this is true. Kiddie porn is documentary evidence of a rape. If you see some and don’t report it to the police, then you’re an accessory after the fact. You are therefore not free to access child porn.

  17. Thanks yes I got it now, its running very slow, cant be arsed waiting around until the articles open up, a bit of anticlimax to be honest.

    What about Iceland though, weren’t they the only ones to lock up a banker and kick out the CIA, pretty cool.

  18. It’s not going to work that way with current infrastructure without a good deal of tweaking. As it stands today, you have to get your top level domain (.freedom) in the internet root servers for arbitrary resolution to work.

    No, you don’t. That’s not how DNS works. If you point your client to an upstream DNS server, and that server declares it is authoritative for the .freedom TLD, and you try to resolve (say) http://www.server.freedom in your web browser everything will work just fine.

    DNS has a hierarchy and root servers to obviate the need to have all DNS servers cache a copy of all domains, but that’s convention, not an immutable part of the protocol. If the only way to have an arbitrary TLD was to register it with ICANN/IANA, then Microsoft’s Active Directory wouldn’t work.

    Kiddie porn is documentary evidence of a rape. If you see some and don’t report it to the police, then you’re an accessory after the fact.

    The same is true for crime scene photos, America’s Greatest Car Chases, and those Faces of Death videos, and those aren’t illegal to sell, distribute and own.

  19. I must admit I was surprised that a .ai domain was being revoked, Asia in general is usually thicker skinned than that. Until I got to “Asia Registry is an Australian company”. Oh. I see. I wasn’t aware that our laws should dictate what can appear on a domain which is technically outside our borders (the content probably wasn’t hosted here either) except for the registry services being outsourced here, but I’m not surprised.

  20. @Daniel Ream
    No, you don’t. That’s not how DNS works. If you point your client to an upstream DNS server, and that server declares it is authoritative for the .freedom TLD, and you try to resolve (say) http://www.server.freedom in your web browser everything will work just fine.

    DNS has a hierarchy and root servers to obviate the need to have all DNS servers cache a copy of all domains, but that’s convention, not an immutable part of the protocol. If the only way to have an arbitrary TLD was to register it with ICANN/IANA, then Microsoft’s Active Directory wouldn’t work.

    You and I are probably violently agreeing.

    Recall that there are two related DNS server functions. Being a recursive (caching) resolver and being authoritative. A DNS server can do both but they are two different things.

    AD works because AD servers have rules about how to resolve .local addresses so they know not to query the root DNS servers for the .local TLD. But since .local is also used by Bonjour and other RFC 6762 mDNS implementations there can be an interesting set of DNS fails when using such names which is illustrative of the problem with using a tld not registered with the root

    In order for members of the general public to get access to http://www.somewhere.freedom the DNS infrastucture they use has to know where the .freedom nameservers are in order to get the authoritative name servers for somewhere.freedom. If you don’t have those name servers registered with the root then you have to find a different way. Now you could do this by having some app that patched every single device so that (as with .local addresses and RFC 6762 or tor and .onion addresses) it already knows to use different resolution system for .freedom but that’s unwieldy. Or you could do it by patching some of the upstream DNS servers (say the major ones for each ISP – or possibly the caching resolver inside most home routers). Or you could tell everyone that wants .freedom to use your own DNS server infrastructure instead of the infrastructure their ISP provides.

    This latter is what google offers with 8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4, what openDNS offers and various other alternate DNS providers. The problem here is that the average user has to know how to change his DNS server settings and that’s not as simple as one would like. Also you have to build the infrastructure to accept millions of queries a second, handle DDoSes and so on. I’ve talked to the guy who rolled out the openDNS infrastructure, it was a lot of work and a lot of hardware to get right.

    I have some ideas about how to possibly get around this but it’s not a trivial problem

  21. @Bardon: Google’s market cap is almost twice that of ExxonMobil’s. OK, let’s say Google is hugely overvalued. Still, its 2016 EBITDA was about $30 billion vs. ExxonMobil’s $25 billion. Sure, XOM will probably overtake GOOG in terms of the bottom line if oil goes up to $60+, but they are going to stay in the same league in the foreseeable future.

    @Daniel Ream: Courts in the US don’t recognize “conventional” porn as protected speech. If someone makes a film showing a Trump look-alike having fun with Hillary and Chelsea look-alikes, it might qualify as protected for its political message. Or if there’s a Mark Rothko painting tattooed on a performer’s buttock, it might earn the flick an exemption for artistic value. Otherwise, it’s considered beyond the scope of the First Amendment. However, political speech is unquestionably protected. To deal with this well-established protection, some on the left are now arguing that “hate speech” should not be considered speech at all but either action or a direct call to immediate violence.

  22. If someone makes a film showing a Trump look-alike having fun with Hillary and Chelsea look-alikes

    I’m glad you didn’t provide a link. Ivanka and two of her closest friends, yes. Trump and any of the Clintons, no thanks.

    Otherwise, it’s considered beyond the scope of the First Amendment.

    Was this what Larry Flynn argued against?

  23. The outsourcing of state action to avoid constitutional limits on state action has a long and checkered past.

    Look back to the USA near the time of the Depression. “Company towns” were established by large companies near farms, factories – any site which required masses of laborers.

    Being privately owned, these towns could do what they liked without regard to constitutional provisions that guaranteed workers the right to free speech and the right to free assembly. Since the Constitution only applied to action taken by the government, companies could institute whatever rules they saw fit, usually for purposes of avoiding unionization.

    For a period of time, the courts gave some limited protection to the workers by deeming these towns to be acting as and for the state, but those protections were gradually phased out.

    This is why the private owners of very large indoor malls and other facilities can limit constitutional protections such as free speech on their property.

    The internet has really turned into one large company town now. We’re on their property, subject to their rules. As someone with libertarian leanings, it kills me to say this, but it may well be time to re-examine the old (and now-gone) deeming of such controlled environments as being quasi-governmental, just so constitutional protections apply.

    Thank Obama (in the USA, at least) for privatizing the internet by transferring the internet domain name authority (IANA) from the federal government to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – a quasi-private entity whose acts don’t implicate “state action”, but which can be sued and threatened much more easily than the previous governmental body could.

  24. Or you could tell everyone that wants .freedom to use your own DNS server infrastructure instead of the infrastructure their ISP provides.

    This is what I’m suggesting, yes.

    The problem here is that the average user has to know how to change his DNS server settings and that’s not as simple as one would like.

    No one said freedom was easy. Of course, it’s a one-line PowerShell script to flip one’s DNS settings back and forth.

    I’ve talked to the guy who rolled out the openDNS infrastructure, it was a lot of work and a lot of hardware to get right.

    OpenDNS is trying to be the DNS infrastructure for everyone in the world; they have a completely different scope to deal with.

    Courts in the US don’t recognize “conventional” porn as protected speech.

    That is highly dependent on what you consider “conventional”.

  25. Being privately owned, these towns could do what they liked without regard to constitutional provisions that guaranteed workers the right to free speech and the right to free assembly. Since the Constitution only applied to action taken by the government, companies could institute whatever rules they saw fit, usually for purposes of avoiding unionization.

    The internet has really turned into one large company town now. We’re on their property, subject to their rules.

    That’s an excellent parallel, one worthy of wider attention.

  26. Tim, Larry Flynt’s obscenity conviction was reversed on appeal but he didn’t succeed in overturning the so-called Miller test.

    BTW, in 2005, one particularly obnoxious member of the Russian Duma produced a short movie depicting some steamy sex between an actor looking like the then president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, and an actress resembling the then PM of Ukraine, Yulia Timoshenko.

  27. Tim, Larry Flynt’s obscenity conviction was reversed on appeal but he didn’t succeed in overturning the so-called Miller test.

    Ah, okay: thanks.

    BTW, in 2005, one particularly obnoxious member of the Russian Duma produced a short movie depicting some steamy sex between an actor looking like the then president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, and an actress resembling the then PM of Ukraine, Yulia Timoshenko.

    /Facepalm

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