The Week in Tech: How Does 8chan Whack-a-Mole End?

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Hi, I’m Jamie Condliffe. Greetings from London. Here’s a look at this past week’s tech news:

Efforts to take a controversial website offline have been complex and divisive — but perhaps also galvanizing.

After the tragic shootings in Texas and Ohio, it came to light that the suspect in El Paso had posted a manifesto outlining his motivations to the online message board 8chan shortly before the massacre, the authorities said. It’s not the first time this has happened: Attackers have posted similar documents to 8chan before other shootings. And it appears the El Paso suspect took inspiration from them.

Cloudflare, an internet infrastructure and cybersecurity company that served 8chan, wavered over how to react. Ultimately it decided to stop providing its services to the site, leaving 8chan vulnerable to crippling cyberattacks. Cloudlfare’s chief executive, Matthew Prince, wrote that 8chan’s “lawlessness” had “contributed to multiple horrific tragedies.”

If 8chan was a mole, it was whacked.

So the site used Epik, another infrastructure company. The mole re-emerged! Briefly. Voxility, a company that provides computing services to Epik, was criticized for helping to support 8chan, so it dumped Epik, indirectly whacking 8chan again.

What now? Well, someone will almost certainly give 8chan a new lease of life. That might be on a crummy server in Russia, or elsewhere.

Even so, it may not come back full throttle. Leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee have called on Jim Watkins, the owner of 8chan, to “provide testimony regarding 8chan’s efforts to investigate and mitigate the proliferation of extremist content.” So it’s possible that 8chan may yet see its hyper-free-speech sensibilities crimped, at least a little.

If that happens, it’s likely to drive a hard core of alt-right users elsewhere. That’s clearly not as easy as it once was, but an 8chan alternative could surface.

Another possibility: “These kinds of communications could move into encrypted environments,” like Telegram or WhatsApp, said Andrew Sullivan, the president and chief executive of the Internet Society, a global nonprofit. “What happens then is you can’t whack the mole, because the mole doesn’t come out of the hole.”

Such marginalization “could reduce the reach of these communities,” said Rasmus Nielsen, a professor of political communication at Oxford University. But “it could increase cohesion inside the hard core,” he added. It’s hard to know what might be the dominant force.

All told, the takedowns have created immense uncertainty. And that raises a profound question: Who should be making such big decisions about what stays online?

Mr. Prince of Cloudflare wrote that his company was “incredibly uncomfortable about playing the role of content arbiter,” and that it did “not plan to exercise it often.”

Even so, the way his decision was made has come under scrutiny. Corinne Cath-Speth, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute and the Alan Turing Institute, said it was an ad hoc decision based on a single event, unsupported by a well-defined framework against which such decisions should really be made.

There are two ways to think about that. On one hand, it lacks rigor and consistency and due process that could provide a clear means of making future calls. On the other, it’s a shift away from the First Amendment-minded approach used by many tech companies to simply leave content online.

We might be witnessing with Cloudflare some of the first voluntary steps away from a shrug-the-shoulders mentality, toward a more considered approach to content takedowns.

But, perhaps understandably, it wants to pass on responsibility for codifying such decision-making. “The unresolved question,” Mr. Prince wrote, “is how should the law deal with platforms that ignore or actively thwart the Rule of Law?”

This is not a new phenomenon. “There seems to be a great desire for someone to do something,” Professor Nielsen said. “But the someone is always someone else, and there is no consensus on the something. The tech companies largely argue that policymakers should do it; policymakers in many jurisdictions believe companies should do it.”

Viewed through the lens of the recent shootings, this stalemate looks more problematic than ever. Perhaps from tragedy can come some movement.

If I had a dollar for every person I had spoken to who didn’t know Facebook owned WhatsApp or Instagram I’d … well, I wouldn’t be rich, but I could buy a nice sandwich. Maybe several.

Sadly, my hypothetical money spinner is over. Facebook is adding its name to Instagram and WhatsApp. “We want to be clearer about the products and services that are part of Facebook,” a spokeswoman told Wired. Understandable, given that it has been criticized for, well, not being clear.

A cynic may point to antitrust investigations into Facebook by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission, partly focused on how it has reduced competition, including by buying rising competitors. One of Facebook’s biggest fears seems to be that it could be forced to split off WhatsApp and Instagram. So it’s hard not to view the branding exercise as a (clumsy?) play to demonstrate that the services are too tightly intertwined to be torn apart.

In the same spirit, Bloomberg reported that Facebook planned to take its first real steps toward technical integration of the services by rebuilding Instagram’s chat feature using Messenger technology.

Can Facebook deter a potential breakup? Einer Elhauge, a Harvard law professor, told me that the answer could be contingent on how feasible the authorities deemed a successful split to be. “It’s hard to unscramble eggs,” he said. “Can these eggs be easily unscrambled or not?”

Facebook sure appears to be trying to scramble its eggs as hard and fast as it can.

■ Uber is trying to rule city transit by striking partnerships in cities to sell train and bus tickets and fill gaps with its drivers. But some critics say it could push people away from public transportation.

■ Amazon may penalize product listings by third-party merchants who charge less for products on rival sites, effectively forcing them to raise prices elsewhere.

■ President Trump believes Google might try to sway the 2020 election, and said he would watch it “very closely.”

■ It’s time for Twitter and Instagram to face privacy scrutiny. The former may have used private data for ad targeting without permission; the latter may have let a partner track user locations.

■ Wait, people pay for Tinder? Yep, more than five million of them.

■ Huawei is being pushed out of United States government agencies now that a long-anticipated rule banning their purchases of telecom and video surveillance equipment from the company has been released.

■ Can Big Tech’s legal shield survive? A law that keeps internet companies off the hook for everything they host is under scrutiny from lawmakers, but is probably safe until they agree how to change it.

■ Mark Zuckerberg’s summer reading suggestion? A novel about Thomas Edison and how he tried to protect his electricity monopoly by driving a rival out of business. I believe the correct response is: “Facepalm.”

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