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The lack of transparency of content moderation: the example of Cloudflare and Kiwi Farms

Cloudflare has retired the services of Kiwi Farms.

This sentence probably means nothing to most readers, so let’s unpack it. Cloudflare provides internet security services (protecting websites, for example, against cyberattacks) and also enables faster access to websites by allowing sites to be cached on the network (i.e. say stored in multiple network locations). Kiwi Farms, which serves as an online forum facilitating online harassment campaigns, used Cloudflare to protect its site. According to the Washington Post, at least three suicides succeeded of activity on Kiwi Farms, with “many on the forum considering[ing] their goal to drive their targets to suicide.

In a Cloudflare blog post on August 31, Cloudflare management argued that they view Cloudflare’s provision of basic security and caching services as infrastructure, like internet connectivity. They argued that they shouldn’t be held liable for the content their services protect without legal action. Cloudflare pitted its work against website hosting, the latter of which they said should come with increased accountability and discretion. Based on this self-conception, Cloudflare initially resisted calls to block Kiwi Farms.

Later that week, however, Cloudflare changed its stance. Although Cloudflare’s decision to withdraw its services clearly relates to increased public pressurethey attributed their turnaround to increase in threats of violence by Kiwi Farms users responding to reviews, which turned out to be significant. In other words, Cloudflare became increasingly concerned that Kiwi Farms was hosting content that could lead to violence and consequently ended its service-side support for the site. At its heart, this was a content moderation decision, and a major one.

Cloudflare’s decision may seem insignificant, but it has a huge impact. Approximately 20 percent Internet uses Cloudflare for Internet security services, and Cloudflare’s decision to drop Kiwi Farms allows Cloudflare to effectively and unilaterally shut down Kiwi Farms (at least until Kiwi Farms can find another security service provider). safety, if possible). In the modern Internet ecosystem, no hosting server would host an insecure provider – the dangers would be too great.

This recent decision reflects the current reality that many content moderation decisions are is happening more and more outside the traditional boundaries of websites and service providers, such as Twitter and Facebook. The challenge is that most of these content moderation decisions are arcane – companies aren’t obligated to make their decisions transparent and have no real economic interest in doing so.

The Cloudflare/Kiwi Farms case is almost paradigmatic. To be sure, Cloudflare has a abuse policy. But there is no way of knowing how it is applied. Cloudflare publishes a transparency report of its activities (the last one is hereand their archives dating back to 2018 are here, with other archives dating back to 2013 here), but these reports relate exclusively to legal requests (primarily relating to requests to remove copyrighted material under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and to respond to subpoenas). Nothing in these reports details how often Cloudflare blocks websites based on content, or how it enforces its own publicly expressed standards. We know (because they have said it publicly) that Cloudflare has already done so; it previously blocked the Daily Stormer and 8chan, but that’s about it. The how, why, and who of Cloudflare’s content moderation decisions remain unclear.

None of this is to say that the Kiwi Farms decision is wrong – indeed, from what we can see in the public record, it seems well justified – mostly because the apparent risk of physical violence and because of the apparent efforts to create real harm for the people of Kiwi Farms. But that is to say that many parts of the information ecosystem on the Internet to take decisions about content moderation, and no one really knows how it’s done.

Cloudflare is not alone in this regard. Our recently completed research suggests that less than half of companies in the “internet space” publish transparency reports, and of those that do, almost none provide transparency on their content moderation decisions. These companies wield great power in their content moderation decisions. If Kiwi Farms cannot find another service provider, it is effectively dead. Regardless of what one thinks of Kiwi Farms, the fact that companies in the online news ecosystem have this power and we know next to nothing about it is embarrassing.

Cloudflare may think its status as an “infrastructure provider” means it should be held to a different standard. Maybe so. But the reality is that we cannot know how to judge this statement without greater transparency as to what it does and how


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