In a Battle Between Harassment and Censorship, the Choice Is Clear

I don’t like to rank ethical issues in a hierarchy, but one problem sits with a weaver’s serenity at the center of a whole web of others: How do we ethically address networked harassment? Two recent articles about the ongoing battle to keep the stalking and harassment nexus of Kiwi Farms offline—one a Washington Post report detailing the saga, the other an unsigned statement from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)—perfectly illustrate the grinding gears of our age’s thorniest tech ethics issue.

Kiwi Farms was subject to a broadly successful series of campaigns led by erstwhile targets of the site, like the streamer Clara Sorrenti and technologist Liz Fong-Jones. The activists—most of whom are trans women, a group the site has viciously harassed for years—targeted Tier 1 internet service providers (ISPs) like Cloudflare (sometimes known as the internet’s backbone) and got them to cut off Kiwi Farms, making it harder for the site to be accessed globally. The battle “raises serious doubts about society’s ability to block any site from the global web—even one that explicitly incites violence,” writes Washington Post reporter Nitasha Tiku.

Meanwhile, the EFF, though condemning the site’s activities, criticized the campaign against it because the implications for speech, they say, are chilling. “We do not need more corporate speech police, however well-meaning,” they write.

There are good reasons to be cautious about pressuring ISPs, but there are nuances to networked online harassment that ensure easy answers will elude us. In my taxonomy of online harassment, Kiwi Farms is an archetypal networked abuse campaign, with all three orders of harassment bearing down on a person. What makes it different from, say, Reddit and Twitter is the disproportionate amount of first-order harassment—abuse that intrudes physically on a target—that the site generates. Though especially vicious, it’s hardly unique in what it does. Exceptionally concentrated, perhaps, but not special. As with the 4chan message boards, GamerGate websites, Stormfront, 8chan, and 8kun, there is a playbook at work here.

This means that, regardless of Kiwi Farms’ ultimate fate, the problem of such networked harassment will not go away. It’s a classic rights conflict, one that cannot be resolved either by unstinting adherence to abstract principles or by breezy exceptionalism. In every case, if the most devoted and prejudicial abusers can network their abuse, they leave democracy’s defenders with only the most unpalatable of choices. Let’s sail between Scylla and Charybdis for a while.

The choice Kiwi Farms leaves us with is deeply unpalatable. Do we teach a corporation to indulge in censorship more overtly, eroding an already tenuous abstract principle that guards the open internet? Or do we rely on the state to protect us from online harassment, compelling them to encroach on speech with restrictions on physical freedom? Each path is a road to hell. One is lined with corporate PR speak, the other with police truncheons.

EFF legal director Corynne McSherry pointed to the advantages of using a state institution to deal with these sorts of issues: documentation, accountability, and clear, common standards. She added that allies can help by “demanding that law enforcement do their jobs, which is not happening, and that Congress enact real and enforceable data privacy protections that would make doxxing harder,” and reminded me that the EFF’s focus here is global; many debates on this issue tend to be quite parochial, focused tightly on the US with occasional, glancing references to the EU.

It’s true that pressuring ISPs carries risks and that breaking up the network does not eliminate the problem. In these times of the far right’s creeping attacks on free expression, who’s to say this won’t be their next tactic? It’s also true that civil society groups in middle income and developing countries, meanwhile, already struggle with authoritarian governments using ISPs to censor them and disperse political opposition.

But I’ve always been leery of the argument that we forestall such evil by refusing to exercise moral judgement and retreating behind abstract principles which the far right has already made clear they will not abide by. Meanwhile, beleaguered civil society activists are invoked in these discussions by cyber libertarians, as they should be, yet their struggles make something else clear. Arguing that organizations like Cloudflare are illegitimate targets for grassroots activism feels arbitrary and mostly disconnected from the ongoing battles in the rest of the world. Authoritarian censors were doing their fell work long before Kiwi Farms’ victims began to fight back.

The EFF isn’t wrong to suggest that someone in a position of power should be responsible, some government agency or collective that can respond to the depredations of the likes of Kiwi Farms so that ordinary people don’t have to make it a part-time job all on their own, with no support. The problem is that when prominent targets of harassment try to use existing state mechanisms to deal with networks of abuse, they run up against two critical problems. First, the law is often highly inadequate, and can at times threaten, in the EFF’s words, to also be a chainsaw when only a scalpel will do.

For their part, End Kiwi Farms’ Liz Fong-Jones and Katherine Lorelei were bemused by the idea that they fanned the flames of censorship: “It’s contradictory to hear organizations like the EFF call for the government to intervene, and also to call government intervention ‘censorship’ in the same breath.” The two women mentioned the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, also known as SESTA/FOSTA—laws that the EFF strenuously opposed—as a clear example of the alternative to End Kiwi Farms’ activism. “If you want to move [acceptable use policy] enforcement to the realm of government oversight, it’s more than likely going to result in a much more heavy-handed approach than is necessary,” they said.

In an ideal world, the accountability of state-based mechanisms would be preferable to the more arbitrary and opaque dictates of the corporate world, but how could anyone mistake our world for an ideal one? How can we trust the very criminal justice system McSherry criticizes, rightly, for pursuing, facilitating, and failing to stop the increasingly authoritarian goals of the far right: banning books, criminalizing reproductive choice and bodily autonomy, and so on?

Second, harassment of this nature is rarely the exclusive product of a handful of identifiable individuals committing illegal acts. It is the product of a network.

One of the most prominent victims of the GamerGate harassment campaign took out a restraining order against their ex-partner, whose false accusations lent fire to the movement. The restraining order did nothing to meaningfully resolve the abuse, yet even if it had worked, it wouldn’t have stopped the GamerGate campaign. The campaign was built on multiple tiers of harassment across several forums that were radicalizing angry young people—mostly men—into hating their targets, obsessively stalking their online presences, and sharing rationales for abuse with one another.

While the lieutenants of GamerGate played an important role in calling targets and amplifying the less-followed members of the movement, they also needed those crowdsourced nobodies in order to make their target really feel the pain. You can’t take out a restraining order on a crowd, nor arrest them. Awful as their speech is, it is constitutional. But the ferment of that speech is what creates the basis for more overt forms of abuse, rationalizing and making it seem justified to dox and swat a target, leave a dead animal on their doorstep, stalk them and send the pictures to their parents, leave threatening messages at their door, and so on.

Thus, breaking up their network is the chief strategic goal. It is the least intrusive option that remains effective. It’s why people like Fong-Jones and Lorelei chose the targets they did. If you add speedbumps—friction—to those seeking to access a site like Kiwi Farms, you make it much harder to source the crowd. You make it harder to draw enough people in the vile hope that one among their number will be deranged enough to go the extra mile in attacking the target in more direct ways. Such networks radicalize their members, ratcheting up their emotions and furnishing them with justifications for their abuse and more besides.

Breaking up the network does not eliminate the problem, but it does ameliorate it. The harder you make it to crowdsource, the likelier it is that a particular harassment campaign will fizzle out. Kiwi Farms remains able to do harm, but it would be a mistake to suggest that its endurance on the internet means its victims have failed to hobble them. They’re weaker than they once were, there are fewer foot soldiers to recruit from, it’s harder for the fly-by-night harassers to access the site conveniently. When you winnow such extremists down to their most devoted adherents, they remain a threat, but they lack the manpower to effect harm the way they once did.

If citizenship and politics mean anything, they must include the kind of agentic organizing exercised by Kiwi Farms’ victims—to ensure that they could be more than passive victims. This is, after all, what the political theorist Hannah Arendt meant by the word “action.” That simple word, for her, meant exercising the very capacity to do something new, to change the rules, upend the board, and be unpredictable. It is, she argues, at the heart of what makes us who we are as a species—and the essence of politics worthy of the name.

Allowing Kiwi Farms to flourish would not have protected anyone anywhere in the world from the malice of authoritarians who seek to abuse power at every turn. They might have used the banning of Kiwi Farms or the Daily Stormer as a fig leaf of “precedent,” but keeping these sites online would not have stopped the censors. What would Kiwi Farms’ victims have been sacrificed for? Shall the shameless do as they please, and the decent suffer what they must?

What this experience reveals, and what is generalizable to future dilemmas of this sort, is that breaking up a harassment network remains the least intrusive option on the table. Perhaps pressuring the deep stack in this way is not optimal. The EFF is right to raise serious doubts, doubts I share. But then this key insight about the network effects of harassment campaigns means that the solution, however partial or provisional, lies in finding other ways of disrupting the networks of extremist abusers. If anyone should be left holding the short straw of pluralism, it should be them.

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