Politics by Other Means: Internet Infrastructure Providers and Governance Beyond Legal Disputes (CPT/ESN)


This paper examines the cancellation of the website 8chan’s web security services and hosting by Cloudflare and Voxility following the publication of a mass shooter’s racist manifesto on that platform. Cloudflare and Voxility’s choice to deplatform 8chan were part of an ongoing effort by mainstream internet infrastructure companies to distance themselves from alt-right content. Well-known, consumer-oriented companies, such as Nike, have long been vulnerable and responsive to criticism of their practices. However, less visible companies and industries, such as web hosting services, banking, and telecoms, have increasingly taken it upon themselves to actively intervene in political issues. In addition to the case mentioned above, advertising companies have cancelled controversial billboards, banks have cancelled funding for coal-power projects, and companies of all kinds have spoken publicly for or against political issues such as Brexit. These political advocacy events often have little to do with legal boundaries and instead revolve around murkier concepts, including individual morals, corporate values and mission statements, and public reputation. Cloudflare and Voxility’s decisions prevented 8chan’s access to online audiences for months and raised important questions about online freedom of expression, the rise of right-wing extremism, and the ability of commercial actors to unlilaterally make very serious decisions about internet governance—questions raised by Cloudflare even as it chose to remove the site as a client. The concerns raised by Cloudflare echo longstanding questions within internet governance scholarship about the power of commercial actors in online infrastructure and the relationship between content governance online and the rule of law (For instance, in Musiani et al., 2016 and Suzor, 2018). This research paper asks: What do Cloudflare and Voxility’s decisions to intervene in this case indicate about governance in practice, rather than in relation to existing law and policy? Online platforms and media attention oriented much of this controversy toward public communication and created opportunities to study the ensuing controversies and their resolution using methods based in controversy mapping and actor-network theory. Using a theoretical framework based on Boltanski and Thevenot’s (2006) model of economies of worth, this paper examines public advocacy by the for-profit companies involved as tests of public justification, revealing the circumstances in which civic logics are adopted by market actors. In the case of Cloudflare, Voxility, and 8chan, the examination reveals awareness and responses to regulatory gaps, as well as creative, and troublingly arbitrary, attempts to address these gaps on a case-by-case basis through commercial actors.