EFF speaks out against ISPs acting as extralegal digital censors

Reports that a Tier 1 ISP has been partially denying service to a customer in order to censor a contentious online forum raise fundamental questions around freedom of speech.

“ISPs Should Not Police Online Speech—No Matter How Awful It Is,” states the headline of a recent blog by digital civil liberties advocate Electronic Frontier Foundation. The catalyst for that statement was provided by reports that Hurricane Electric, one of the world’s largest internet backbone providers, was partially denying service to one of its customers – a server provider called Crunchbits.

But the indirect target of these restrictions was apparently a highly contentious internet forum called Kiwi Farms, which is accused of being a place where online harassment campaigns are coordinated. So it seems Hurricane Electric is effectively using one of its own customers as a proxy in order to censor a website.

While not specifically defending Kiwi Farms, EFF argues from a point of principle that telcos or other internet infrastructure providers acting as freelance censors sets a very dangerous precedent. The blog points out that Tier 1 ISPs are often monopolies, who therefore wield considerable power. Furthermore, the commencement of such censorship activity usually leads to demands for more. In other words, it’s the thin end of the wedge.

The matter of ISPs as potential arbiters of online content is not a new one, with the UK going so far as to explore the potential for passing laws in that direction. But this case seems to be entirely extra-legal, akin to the decision by AWS to cut off social media site Parler in early 2021. This also isn’t the first such case concerning Kiwi Farms, with network security provider Cloudflare blocking the site a year ago.

As a recent Washington Post report highlights, there is considerable weight behind the push to completely remove Kiwi Farms from the internet, but that’s easier said than done. The legal status of Kiwi Farms is unclear but if it isn’t breaking any laws, however unpleasant some of its collective behaviour is, what is the basis for such a campaign? “Tier 1 ISPs like Hurricane should resist the temptation to step in where law enforcement and legislators have failed,” concludes the EFF blog.

As ever with matters of censorship, this case raises at least two important questions: who decides and who’s next? Hurricane seems to have put itself in a precarious position by setting this precedent and will presumably now be called upon to act against other sites. The internet is ultimately controlled by a handful of, mostly US, tech players and yet there seems to be little legal oversight of that power.


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One comment

  1. Avatar Tristan2858 05/09/2023 @ 2:59 pm

    Very glad you are covering this.

    The inability of providers and monopolists to visualize a countervailing world where ‘the shoe is placed on the other foot’ is remarkable. A precedent is a precedent, regardless of consequence or misdirected short-term advocacy.

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