You can watch the Stuff Circuit documentary Infinite Evil here.

OPINION: On March 15, 51 people – worshipping Muslims – were killed when a gunman opened fire at two Christchurch mosques. 

In the days and weeks that followed, Stuff Circuit journalists began asking questions about what happened, and specifically about one website implicated in the attack: 8chan, where the shooter posted a message to his “cobbers” in advance of livestreaming the massacre on Facebook. 

You’ll probably have seen by now that 8chan is an image board website, and one board in particular, /pol, is home to some of the most vile, racist, anti-Semetic, Islamophobic, mysogynistic rantings you could read anywhere, used by Neo-Nazis dedicated to radicalising people – and it’s all done anonymously. 8chan’s policy is one of absolutist free speech. There’s effectively zero moderation. 

So how did such a site stay online? Given the extreme nature of some of its content, you’d think it’d be targeted by DDOS, or denial of service attacks, which would paralyse it.

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The answer takes you to a company headquartered in San Francisco. Cloudflare provides internet security for millions of websites  – “trusted by over 19,000,000 internet properties”, says its own website – protecting them from cyber attack. 

Cloudflare’s position is that its role is to provide one piece of the infrastructure for the internet; it doesn’t make, curate, publish or host content, and it’s not its job to regulate the content on the websites for which it provides security. It’s not the content police.

But in August 2017 Cloudflare decided to make an exception. It terminated the account of the far-right website, The Daily Stormer, with Cloudflare chief executive Matthew Prince saying, “The tipping point for us making this decision was that the team behind Daily Stormer made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology”. 

So we thought surely after an event of the scale of Christchurch, and the direct link with 8chan – which continued to host the shooter’s manifesto and video (ruled objectionable by New Zealand’s Chief Censor) – Cloudflare would want to disassociate itself from the website, and nix its contract? 

We sent an email back in May, asking about Cloudflare’s position on its business with 8chan, and whether what happened in Christchurch had prompted concern, and if so, what action would be taken. 

Stuff Circuit has produced a documentary on online hate called Infinite Evil.

PHIL JOHNSON/TOBY LONGBOTTOM

Stuff Circuit has produced a documentary on online hate called Infinite Evil.

Cloudflare’s communications manager came back with a friendly and efficient, almost instant response, saying “we feel it’s important to have a conversation”. 

So they set up a phone call for us with Cloudflare’s head of policy, Alissa Starzak, in which Starzak reiterated that Cloudflare provides infrastructure and it’s not its job to police content, that The Daily Stormer was a different set of circumstances to 8chan, and no, Cloudflare would not be terminating 8chan’s contract. 

We kept that conversation short because we were about to travel to the US to film interviews for Infinite Evil, a documentary about online hate and 8chan, and wanted to talk to someone on camera so we could challenge that argument. 

But Cloudflare later told us, “unfortunately, the executives who’d be best for this piece are travelling … And won’t be available.”

Cloudflare continued to provide security to 8chan, and 8chan remained online. 

Stuff Circuit wanted to talk to someone from Cloudflare on camera about online hate and 8chan.

PHIL JOHNSON/TOBY LONGBOTTOM

Stuff Circuit wanted to talk to someone from Cloudflare on camera about online hate and 8chan.

Then El Paso happened. 

On August 3, 22 people – going about their daily lives – were killed when a gunman opened fire at a Walmart store. 

He’d also written a “manifesto”, saying he was trying to stop a “Hispanic invasion of Texas”. Investigators say it was posted on 8chan about 20 minutes before the shooting. 

Two days later, Cloudflare terminated 8chan, saying, “They have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths”.

Outside the Cloudflare office in San Francisco in the US.

PHIL JOHNSON/TOBY LONGBOTTOM

Outside the Cloudflare office in San Francisco in the US.

It meant 8chan went offline immediately (though was still accessible on the dark web, albeit unreliably), with 8chan admin Ron Watkins saying on Twitter, “We are using the downtime now to scale 8chan’s servers, networking, and software to be stronger for when we come back online”. 

So the threat is not over, which, to be fair to Cloudflare, had previously been one of its rationales for refusing to act in an interventionist manner: that any website it axed could simply set up with a Cloudflare competitor – it’s whack-a-mole. 

But you’d have to think that sooner or later, the vileness of 8chan would mean that no business would want an association with it, so the cumulative effect of axing contracts would eventually leave 8chan permanently unable to operate. And, at least temporarily, Cloudflare’s stance must have damaged 8chan. 

22 people - going about their daily lives - were killed when a gunman opened fire at a Walmart store in El Paso in the US.

MARK LAMBIE/AP

22 people – going about their daily lives – were killed when a gunman opened fire at a Walmart store in El Paso in the US.

So we went back to Cloudflare with three questions. 

Why did Cloudflare’s position change after El Paso? Why were the 51 lives lost in Christchurch not enough for Cloudflare to take that stance then? Why did it take an extra 22 people to die before Cloudflare did decide to terminate 8chan’s contract? 

In stark contrast to the first time we got in touch with Cloudflare, this time we had no response at all. Nothing. It seems they no longer want to have a conversation. 

So, kudos to Cloudflare for doing the right thing after El Paso. 

But why weren’t the deaths of 51 people in Christchurch sufficient? 

Why did it take the killing of another 22 people for it to find its moral compass?

Infinite Evil, a documentary about online hate, by the Stuff Circuit team, in association with NZ on Air, is available on stuff.co.nz and will screen on Māori TV tonight at 7.30pm.



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