International Coalition of Rights Groups Call on Internet Infrastructure Providers to Avoid Content Policing

Except in Rare Cases, Intervening to Block Sites or Remove Content Can Harm Users

San Francisco—Internet infrastructure services—the heart of a secure and resilient internet where free speech and expression flows—should continue to focus their energy on making the web an essential resource for users and, with rare exceptions, avoid content policing. Such intervention often causes more harm than good, EFF and its partners said today.

EFF and an international coalition of 56 human and digital rights organizations from around the world are calling on technology companies to “Protect the Stack.” This is a global effort to educate users, lawmakers, regulators, companies, and activists about why companies that constitute basic internet infrastructure—such as internet service providers (ISPs), certificate authorities, domain name registrars, hosting providers, and more—and other critical services, such as payment processors, can harm users, especially less powerful groups, and put human rights at risk when they intervene to take down speech and other content. The same is true for many other critical internet services.

EFF today launched the Protect the Stack website at the Internet Governance Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The website introduces readers to “the stack,” and explains how content policing practices can and have caused risks to the human rights. It is currently available in English, Spanish, Arabic, French, German, Portuguese, Hebrew, and Hindi.

“Internet infrastructure companies help make the web a safe and robust space for free speech and expression,” said EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry. “Content-based interventions at the infrastructure level often cause collateral damage that disproportionately harms less powerful groups. So, except in rare cases, stack services should stay out of content policing.”

“We have seen a number of cases where content moderation applied at the internet’s infrastructural level has threatened the ability of artists to share their work with audiences,” said Elizabeth Larison, Director of the Arts and Culture Advocacy Program at the National Coalition Against Censorship. “The inconsistency of those decisions and the opaque application of vague terms of service have made it clear that infrastructure companies have neither the expertise nor the resources to make decisions on content.”

Infrastructure companies are key to online expression, privacy, and security. Because of the vital role they play in keeping the internet and websites up and running, they are increasingly under pressure to play a greater role in policing online content and participation, especially when harmful and hateful speech targets individuals and groups.

But doing so can have far-reaching effects and lead to unintended consequences that harm users. For example, when governments force ISPs to disrupt the internet for an entire country, people can no longer message their loved ones, get news about what’s happening around them, or speak out.

Another example is domain name system (DNS) abuse, where the suspension and deregistration of domain names is used as a means to stifle dissent. ARTICLE 19 has documented multiple instances of “DNS abuse” in Kenya and Tanzania.

Moreover, at the platform level, companies that engage in content moderation consistently reflect and reinforce bias against marginalized communities. Examples abound: Facebook decided, in the midst of the #MeToo movement’s rise, that the statement “men are trash” constitutes hateful speech. In addition, efforts to police “extremist” content by social media platforms have caused journalists’ and human rights defenders’ work documenting terrorism and other atrocities to be blocked or erased. There’s no reason to expect that things will be any different at other levels of the stack, and every reason to expect they will be worse.

A safe and secure internet helps billions of people around the world communicate, learn, organize, buy and sell, and speak out. Stack companies are the building blocks behind the web, and have helped keep the internet buzzing for businesses, families, and students during the COVID-19 and for Ukrainians and Russians during the war in Ukraine. We need infrastructure providers to stay focused on their core mission: supporting a robust and resilient internet.

For more information: https://protectthestack.org/

Contact: 
Corynne
McSherry
Legal Director
EFF