We have to talk about infrastructure

The essential infrastructure of the Internet must be content neutral. These services should not make editorial decisions that remove content beyond the scope of the law. This is partly because history shows that any new method of censorship will eventually be abused, and that those abuses often end up hurting the less powerful.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is defining what exactly is “essential Internet infrastructure” and for which users. We must also recognize that this designation can and does change over time. Right now, the “infrastructure” designation risks being thrown around too easily, resulting in unnuanced conversations at best and an unjustified blanket of protection, sometimes for anti-competitive business models, at worst. .

The term “infrastructure” can encompass a technically nuanced landscape of things—services, standards, protocols, and physical structures—each of which have varying degrees of impact if removed from the proverbial pile. Here’s how EFF thinks about the infrastructure spectrum with regards to content moderation in late 2022, and how our thinking has changed over time.

Essentially Infrastructure

Some things are absolutely, essentially, infrastructure. These things often have no meaningful alternative, no inconvenient but available option. Physical infrastructure is the easiest type to see here, with things like undersea cables and Internet Exchange Points (IXPs). These things make up the tangible backbone of the Internet. Parts of the logical layer of the Internet are also at this end of the spectrum of what is and is not critical infrastructure, including protocols like HTTP and TCP/IP. These components of the physical and logical infrastructure share the same essentiality and the same obligation of content neutrality. Without them, the Internet in its current form simply could not exist. At least not at this time.

pretty infrared

Then there’s a layer of things that aren’t necessarily critical Internet infrastructure, but is it so essential for most of us to operate businesses and work online. Because of how the Internet works today, things at this layer have unique bottlenecking capabilities. This includes payment processors, certificate authorities, and even app stores. Without access to these things, many online businesses cannot function. Neither can non-profit organizations, activist groups and many, many others. The unique power that things in this layer have over public equity is too much to deny. Sure, Some There are technically alternatives: things like Monero, sideloading APKs, or root access to a web server to generate your own certificate with Certbot. But these are not realistic options to recommend to someone without significant technical skills or resources. There’s no denying that when these “virtually infrastructure” services choose to control content, those choices can have a disproportionate impact in ways that end users and websites cannot remedy.

Not really Infra, but for some reason we often get stuck saying it’s

Then there’s a whole other layer of stuff that takes place behind the scenes of apps, but still provides an important service to them. These things don’t have the literal power to keep a deck’s lights on (or turn them off), but they do provide an undeniable and sometimes important “quality of life.”

CDNs, security services, and analytics plugins are great examples. If they take the service down, the impact can vary, but in the Internet of 2022, someone who drops in for a service almost always has workarounds that are easy to come by (even if they aren’t as elegant or sophisticated).

CDNs are an important example to consider: they provide data redundancy and speed of access. Sometimes they are more vital to an organization, such as if a company needs to send a gigabyte software update to a billion people as soon as possible. The responsiveness of a web application also depends to some extent on the reliability of a CDN. The transmission is a good example of something whose performance may depend more on that kind of reliability. However, a CDN doesn’t have the lights on/off quality that other things do and only very rarely is its impact on quality of life severe enough to qualify for the “virtually infrastructure” category just discussed. cover. Unfortunately, mischaracterizing the quality of CDN infrastructure is a common mistake, one we’ve even made ourselves.

EFF Past Infrastructure Characterizations

At EFF, we are deeply committed to ensuring that users can trust that we will be careful and correct in all of our promotional activities. Our framework of Cloudflare’s decision to cut service to Kiwi Farms as “infrastructure,” in a post looking at content interventions more generally, fell short of that standard by 2022.

On the plus side, it prompted us at EFF to rethink how we approach infrastructure and content moderation decisions and to think about how the Internet of today is different than it was just a few years ago. In 2022, could we applaud Cloudflare’s decision not to do business with such demons while also strongly supporting the principle that infrastructure should be content neutral? As it turns out, the answer is yes, and that answer begins with a careful and transparent reconsideration of what we mean when we say “infrastructure.”

Our blog post raised concerns about “infrastructure” content interventions and noted Cloudflare’s decision, among others. What happened as a result of that decision, however, is clear: Shortly after Kiwi Farms went offline, it was back up and running with the help of a FOSS bot detection tool. It came at the cost of a slightly slower load time and the occasional CAPTCHA for access control authentication, but that result clearly puts this situation in a “not really under” category in 2022, even if at some point before the loss of Cloudflare’s anti-DDOS service could have been closer to the infrastructure.

When a business like Cloudflare isn’t really crucial to keeping a site online, they shouldn’t claim “infrastructure” status (or use examples of public utility to describe). EFF shouldn’t do that either.

Because true censorship, taking a voice offline with little to no resources, is what we’re really concerned about when we say infrastructure should be content neutral. And since we are concerned about the steps that will actually get people off the Internet, we must recognize that the service that qualifies for that status changes over time, and may even change based on the resources of the censored person or entity.

Infrastructure matters because it is crucial to protecting expression and speech online. EFF will always be raised to “protect the stack”, even if what’s on the stack can and will change over time.

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