How hate speech reveals the invisible politics of internet infrastructure

Infrastructure that works well rarely stands out. The internet infrastructure provided by Cloudflare, which provides a content delivery network that safeguards millions of sites online, is a notable exception. Last year, Cloudflare came under intense pressure to stop providing its services to 8chan, the online message board popular among white supremacists, after the gunmen in three separate shootings posted manifestos on the site prior to their attacks. 8chan had relied on the company’s content delivery network to keep its message board online and accessible. After initially saying it had no legal obligation to do so, the company eventually relented and denied 8chan the use of its services.

Cloudflare’s decision highlights a fundamental question about internet infrastructure companies: What is the political process behind their content moderation decisions?

The services that companies like Cloudflare provide are twofold. First, a content delivery network provides faster load times. Due to the sheer size of the globe, as well as the physical limits of wires and fiber optic cables, content housed on a server farther away from a requesting user will usually take longer to load. Content delivery networks, or CDNs, solve this problem by storing cached copies of a site’s content in datacenters around the world, as close to the user requesting it as possible. Without this service, streaming music or video would slow down considerably. Yet CDNs don’t just offer faster load times—they also provide a unique form of security. One way to take down a website is to overload it with requests, to the point where it has to deny service altogether, in what is known as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. However, DDoS attacks aren’t as effective for websites that rely on companies like Cloudflare, because requests are directed to a CDN rather than the website’s server. As the biggest of many such infrastructural service providers, Cloudflare keeps clients’ websites afloat by making sure that they can always meet users’ demands for the content they provide.

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