After the August 12th hate rally in Charlottesville, online platforms that have long tolerated or ignored white supremacists are very publicly kicking them off. The crackdown spans a broad range of sites and apps, some of which are household names, like Uber, Facebook, and Spotify. But some of the most notable companies to purge their ranks are those we don’t often consider: the web hosts, domain registrars, and other services that you need to put a website on the internet. Over the past week, GoDaddy, Cloudflare, and Google — to name a few — have been playing hot potato with the major neo-Nazi news site Daily Stormer, taking it offline several times as it’s moved around the internet.
After being booted from Namecheap over the weekend, the Daily Stormer’s status remains uncertain. But the white nationalist alt-right movement has experience running a “shadow economy” of sympathetic platforms, including crowdfunding sites like Rootbocks and social networks like Gab. Now, some have started discussing alternatives for basic web services too. Entrepreneur Pax Dickinson, a former Business Insider CTO who recently founded far-right crowdfunding site CounterFund, called for a “full-blown Amazon-style infrastructure company” amid the bans. But running a series of independent services that are immune to outside political pressure is far harder and less rewarding than replacing GoFundMe or Twitter. In 2017, is it possible to build what is essentially a functioning, effective, alternative internet?
One of the biggest pressure points for anti-racist activists right now is domain registrars like GoDaddy, which sell addresses that point web users toward a site. While anyone can hook up a server to the internet, domain name sales are regulated by the multinational organization ICANN, which hands off management of generic top-level domains (gTLDs) to organizations called registries. Registries can then sign contracts with ICANN-accredited registrars, which act as middlemen and sell domain names to the public.
If registrars refuse to serve a site, the seemingly obvious solution — which several people have mentioned online — is to found your own “free speech” registrar. However, obvious isn’t the same thing as practical.
Registrars need to be established companies that can demonstrate technical capability and financial stability. If they want to offer recognized domains extensions, they have to work with companies like Verisign, which controls the coveted .com TLD. Establishing a registry for a new TLD, meanwhile, is pretty much a non-starter right now: the last application period was in 2012, when applicants paid $185,000 just to be evaluated. The next application period is tentatively slated for 2020. “It’s not a situation where someone can just set up shop overnight and start selling domain names,” says Annemarie Bridy, a University of Idaho law school professor who recently published a paper on ICANN’s content regulation policies.
ICANN usually takes a hands-off approach to moderating registrars’ content, and some registrars play host to unsavory spam and malware domains. But even if an alt-right registrar could get accredited, it probably wouldn’t be a profitable business. M. Barry Branagh of the Spamhaus Project, which maintains a list of the most frequently abused services, says that spammers sometimes run their own registrars just to mass-generate domain names. Niche political content would be much less lucrative, and the vast majority of people — even ones with far-right sympathies — would have little reason to choose a small “free speech” registrar over more established alternatives. Even if such a registrar could ignore bad PR, activists could still lodge complaints with the registries, which ultimately control access to domains.
There are ways to bypass ICANN entirely. A site could use an alternative domain name system like Namecoin, for instance. It could advertise a numerical IP address rather than a link. The Daily Stormer set up shop on the free and decentralized Tor network, operating on the so-called dark web. But at that point, you’re not just independent, you’re effectively walled off from the normal internet. There are plenty of technological ways to run a shadow net, says Nathan Freitas, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center and leader of the open-source Guardian Project. “The question is, how willing is the audience to get to it? And is the point to allow their community to get to it, or the whole internet?”
Far-right sites and services want to be real alternatives to their mainstream counterparts, not just enclaves for true believers. After the Daily Stormer went down, founder Andrew Anglin gloated over the “massive amount of publicity” it had gotten. But that popularity is worth much more if it translates to people seeking out the Daily Stormer — and that can’t happen if they can’t find it. While supporters of the parallel economy predict that restrictive policies will drive people into the arms of “free speech”-friendly services, convenience is a powerful force.
Since Squarespace and other hosting services have started banning white supremacist sites, it’s also possible that we’ll see parallel companies running their own alternatives. And starting a web hosting service could certainly insulate sites from the kind of public pressure that’s taken the Daily Stormer offline.
But if the goal is immunity from all regulation, it’s very difficult to truly operate outside the law. The offshore data center HavenCo, for example, fell apart after technical problems and disputes with its hosts on the micronation of Sealand. And American copyright cops routinely police platforms located across the world, thanks to agreements with local governments.
Even if a far-right site were able to secure hosting, other layers of internet infrastructure can pose an existential threat. One of last week’s biggest surprises came when Cloudflare — a web services company known for never banning anything — dropped the Daily Stormer in a fit of pique. Among other things, Cloudflare offers protection against DDoS attacks, which hacktivists can use to batter a controversial site completely offline. Without Cloudflare’s support, the Daily Stormer was periodically inaccessible even on the dark web.
And just like there’s no independent ICANN, an upstart company — especially one that’s deliberately isolated and adversarial — would have trouble competing with providing the type of service that Cloudflare, or its similarly massive competitor like Akamai, can. “There’s a couple companies that have a scary amount of control over the internet,” says Freitas. “The more that [a site is] shunned by the big players, the less resistant they would be to DDoS.”
Currently, the Daily Stormer is using DDoS protection from the small startup BitMitigate. Hacker and site contributor Andrew “weev” Auernheimer also talked about building his own alternative to Cloudflare’s protective services, but it’s hard to evaluate how well that might work. Meanwhile, aggressive DDoS attacks are easy to spin up — and the alt-right has made a lot of enemies.
The effort necessary to create a parallel net would likely outweigh the benefit. Branagh points out that a more viable alternative may be to turn to small non-English-speaking domain registrars — or the managers of certain country-specific top-level domains — who would be largely immune to bad PR.
“At this point, it is now really difficult to be off on your own online,” says Molly Sauter, a Berkman Klein Center affiliate and author of The Coming Swarm: DDOS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet. That’s good news for the people pressuring web companies to crack down on hate content. But for anyone who worries about internet monopolies and walled gardens, it could be a canary in a coal mine. “It’s hard for quote-unquote true social deviants, people who are really way out on the fringe, to maintain a solid presence. But it’s also really easy for a handful of large corporate hosting companies to sort of dictate what is happening.”
The EFF also expressed its own concerns about the Daily Stormer ban last week. In a piece titled “Fighting neo-Nazis and the future of free expression,” members warned that opening the door to regulating speech with the domain name system could create a new tool for oppressive regimes to take websites offline. It called for registrars to take a hard line against suspending site domains, and for other services to follow the Manila Principles, a framework of safeguards and transparency rules for web platforms.
Adopting these measures would make it easier for all groups, not just the alt-right, to secure a place within existing web infrastructure. It wouldn’t, however, make it easier to step outside that infrastructure — which may be why Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin recently called for the US government to regulate ICANN, saying that frankly, he did not have the option to create his own internet. “It’s very hard to roll your own stuff online,” says Sauter.
In an ideal world, Sauter would like to see a mechanism that would bring more real democracy — not just anarchy or corporate dominance — to the online world. For now, there’s really only one internet. In order to operate there, you’ve got to play by its rules. But after last week, those rules aren’t as clear as they once seemed.