After weeks of activist pressure, internet infrastructure company Cloudflare recently ended its support for Kiwi Farms, an online group that’s been described as “the web’s biggest community of stalkers.” The breaking point: a targeted campaign of harassment against a trans livestreamer and activist so severe that it drove its target into hiding. Cloudflare was providing essential technical infrastructure for the site’s security and speed, and with those things taken away, the Kiwi Farms site crashed.
But what should happen to sites like Kiwi Farms in the future? And what is the content moderation responsibility of companies like Cloudflare, which provide basic—usually invisible—services for the vast majority of the web? The U.S. and the EU are facing increased scrutiny over online privacy, safety, and security this year, and some say that service providers like Cloudflare need to assume responsibility too.
Fredrick Brennan is the founder of 8chan, a message board that has been linked to hate speech, white supremacy, and nationalism. In 2019, six years after the message board’s founding, a user of the site carried out a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, and posted his manifesto to 8chan. It was subsequently linked to several other shootings.
Brennan disavowed his creation in the press, and has continued to advocate for action to be taken against image boards like Kiwi Farms and the site he founded. Now 28 years old, he is a software developer.
In this Q&A, adapted from two interviews with Brennan in September, he explains why the internet should be more regulated in the U.S., the way other industries are, to address the problems raised by toxic sites.
It has been edited for length and clarity.
Were you surprised Kiwi Farms was taken down by Cloudflare?
Fredrick Brennan: No, not really, especially because of who they targeted. I’m not surprised at all. I saw it as inevitable. Josh [Moon, the founder of Kiwi Farms] constantly makes errors like this. He is uncompromising when it comes to people that he hates. Clearly, he hates trans people, and has gone on record as believing slander against one of them.
A logical operator in his position would have just not wanted to get into this battle, and I think he wrongly assumed that Cloudflare would stay behind him. I think his ideology is what causes him to be unable to see what is going to happen.
You have first-hand experience of these kinds of sites. Should Cloudflare’s action trigger something broader for companies that provide hosting, security and other infrastructure for websites?
It’s multifaceted. There is really only one country where something like this sh-tty site can exist, and it’s the United States due to the intersection of different laws. In different jurisdictions, it’s just not possible—even in places that you would expect. Singapore for example? No, it’s impossible. Japan? No. That’s the biggest problem because the United States is a broken democracy right now. You know, I’m American. I don’t mind saying that.
All social media is based in the US. It’s not because us Americans are uniquely good at making this stuff. I work on free software, and have worked with developers from basically every country and there is nothing special about our programming skills. There’s nothing special about the American mind when it comes to making web services. It’s all legal and corporate stuff.
It’s really legal arbitrage, where you get in the least trouble in the U.S. That’s why I don’t really know how to answer your question, because I don’t know if there’s any world power that can do anything other than the United States. And I just don’t know how the United States can even begin to act on this, because our system is just so broken.
Our government in the United States has decided that on the international stage, its tech supremacy gives it a lot of power. And therefore, the market regulations are so low as to basically be zero. So all the tech companies want to—if not have their corporate registrations here, which is usually the case—then to have all of their infrastructure here.
Read More: Cloudflare Is One of the Companies That Quietly Powers the Internet. Researchers Say It’s a Haven for Misinformation
Activists rallied against Cloudflare and urged the provider to shut the site down. The site is now moving between providers in Russia and Portugal, in a cat-and-mouse game with activists launching retaliatory attacks. What happens to Kiwi Farms now?
I think that they get away with so much that people will just continue to do this vigilante justice so that [providers like Cloudflare] will pull out. That is emblematic of the Wild West culture of the U.S. internet, where it’s highly vigilante-based.
How do you get out of that vigilante-based system?
I don’t know that there’s a good way. But I do think that we are going to see kind of a new system emerge. I first started to think about it after the Christchurch shooting, when the nations of Australia, New Zealand, and some European countries blocked not only the Kiwi Farms, but 8kun, the 8chan website where the shooter posted their manifesto. It’s basically based on a concept of cyber sovereignty.
There’s becoming a change in norms internationally, where politicians are fed up with the United States and its total lack of action. The internet most likely will become a lot more fractured. And the websites that you are able to access will depend more and more on the nation that you are in.
Is there a model to follow outside the U.S. in terms of regulation? Is that even an option?
I hope so. I think that the UN needs to have some kind of agreement or framework on internet policy. Otherwise there’ll be complete chaos with every country deciding on their own, based on local laws, which websites are accessible.
What should we be doing now?
I think that what we should be doing is what I do, which is mostly focusing on the administrators and whether or not they operate in good faith or bad faith. That’s mostly why I don’t tend to make it a speech issue most of the time—like an issue about the content, per se. I tend to make it an issue about what the administrators are thinking, why they allow certain content, what their processes are like. And when it comes to the Kiwi Farms, their processes are terrible, and they have done things that are literally extortion.
There needs to be, I think, stricter enforcement against what administrators do. But there also needs to be regulation. The same way that we have an FDA that monitors food and drugs and an SEC that monitors securities, you need a regulatory agency just for social media companies. And by the way, image boards like Kiwi Farms and 4chan are as much an IT company that this regulatory authority could take action against as Facebook.
I’d like to see if that helps at all, before we change fundamental things about freedom of speech.
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