As the internet continues to evolve from its earlier days as an unregulated wild west, the big debates about what people should be allowed to see and do online has shifted away from major platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter to focus on the actions of a small group of tech companies.
These service providers operate under the radar to keep the engine of the internet running without the fanfare of their more recognisable counterparts. But for activists interested in eradicating toxic hate speech and harassment online, they have become the latest targets in an ongoing campaign.
Last week, the roving spotlight landed on a new player called Diamwall. Open to the public for only a month, the Portugal-based content delivery network (CDN) provider, which filters website traffic and blocks malicious requests, had been engaged by the notorious trolling and doxing website Kiwi Farms after it was dropped by its previous provider, Cloudflare.
The owner of Kiwi Farms came in need of DDoS Protection and because their website was offline due to DDoS, we didn’t really know about their website’s content. They had a PROBLEM and we had the SOLUTION.
Soon enough the reports started to arrive and we started digging more and more about this website, soon enough we found that Kiwi Farms hosts a lot of revolting content.
We do not think that is fair to terminate any service because of public pressure but in this case, we think there is some foundation behind all those requests and we really do not want to have anything to do with it.
An internet forum known for its active targeting and harassment of trans people, Kiwi Farms has also been blamed for suicides after people were hounded offline – and sometimes out of their homes – by a firehose of vitriol coordinated and directed from the site.
In August, users of the site targeted Canadian Twitch streamer and trans activist Clara Sorrenti, who fled Canada after Kiwi Farms users called in a fake bomb threat at her home and police turned up to her house. The Kiwi Farms trolls subsequently tracked her around the globe to continue their harassment.
The big tech platforms by now have stringent content moderation practices to prevent the proliferation of this kind of online behaviour, but as a standalone website Kiwi Farms is beyond their reach.
Instead of pleading her case to a regulatory body that doesn’t really exist, Sorrenti used her large online following to turn the tables, starting a “Drop Kiwi Farms” movement to get the site kicked off the internet by targeting the companies that kept them operational.
Cloudflare has borne the brunt of the attention over the past two months. As its name suggests, Cloudflare keeps websites online by offering cloud-based services, as well as protection against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that could take sites down. The company says it counts about 25% of websites on the internet as clients.
As the #dropkiwifarms hashtag trended, Cloudflare’s social accounts were inundated. The company initially tried to deflect responsibility for keeping Kiwi Farms operational in a move that mimicked the early attempts of the major social platforms to avoid content moderation. But in early September, Cloudflare ultimately backed down and stopped offering services to the site.
The company has made it clear that it took action begrudgingly. Cloudflare’s CEO, Matthew Prince, said an interview with the Australian Financial Review in the aftermath that he did not want to be in the position of deciding what could and could not appear on the internet. “You don’t want some random guy who lives in the United States picking what is and is not online,” he said. “I have no political legitimacy, right? At all.”
Prince has likened the company’s role to that of a telephone company, pointing out utilities don’t have the power to cut you off if they don’t like how you’re using them.
Since Cloudflare dropped Kiwi Farms, the activists have been playing whack-a-mole to keep the site offline. They sent letters to Diamwall explaining what Kiwi Farms was and arguing Diamwall should not be accepting its business – and provided templates for supporters to do the same. So far the strategy has been successful.
A spokesperson for the Communications Alliance – an Australian lobby group that represents not only digital platforms but also CDNs and internet service providers – says the extent to which private companies should be held responsible for online content is a global issue that has not yet been resolved.
“It’s a complex and evolving problem and, as is often the case, industry, regulators and government are awake to the challenges and looking to develop coordinated, effective responses.”
Prof Nicolas Suzor, at Queensland University of Technology’s digital media research centre, says companies like Cloudflare regularly make decisions about who they will take on as clients.
“I’ve heard complaints from sex workers and other groups [who] have a lot of trouble getting hosting with Cloudflare or with Google or AWS,” he says. “So I think it’s a little disingenuous sometimes for the cloud providers, the infrastructure providers to pretend like they don’t make these decisions all the time.”
Electronic Frontiers Australia chair, Justin Warren, says Cloudflare has “taken the conveniently naive view that a neutral position doesn’t favour either side, which is not true – the neutral position favours the dominant players in the situation”.
Warren says the notion of net neutrality holds that powerful bodies should not exercise power in capricious and arbitrary ways, and if Cloudflare sees itself as a utility, then there should be rules, and transparency in how those rules are enforced.
“If you participate in society, then there are those rights and obligations placed upon you as a condition of participation in society,” he says.
Suzor agrees, saying infrastructure providers will increasingly be expected to regulate the services they provide.
“Cloudflare has had at least four years of deep introspection, and they’ve done nothing to really put in place a better system. It’s not like one doesn’t exist,” he says.
“You can easily imagine different ways that you could make those decisions in a much more open, transparent, legitimate way, either within the company or by outsourcing them to mediation providers or other organisations.
“Set up a clear set of rules and follow them – it’s not that hard.”
Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) announced on Thursday that it was finally pulling the plug on its COVID tracking program.
On February 13, the city-state’s TraceTogether (TT) program, which uses the Bluetooth radios in mobile phones to track movements, and its business check-in system SafeEntry (SE) will come to a halt.
According to the ministry’s announcement, the government had already begun stepping down TT and SE, and would no longer require infected persons to submit TraceTogether data.
“SE data is no longer being collected, and MOH has deleted all identifiable TT and SE data from its servers and databases,” said the department.
The exception is data that was controversially used off-label in a murder investigation.
The systems will remain intact – as well as registration details including name, business registration, and mobile phone number – in case there is a need for reactivation. One example given is if a more dangerous COVID-19 variant were to spread. Apps will also remain available.
The ministry told members of the public, who haven’t been required to have them since last year, that they may “uninstall their TT App, and enterprises may do the same for the SE (Business) App.”
Furthermore, those with a physical TT token, which came in handy for the non-tech savvy as a device that exchanges anonymized identifiers, were asked to return the dongle for recycling.
Singapore began developing the open source TraceTogether at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. The app constantly sought out other Bluetooth-enabled devices that ran the app and logged when they were in close proximity. The country required users to register and inform authorities if they contracted COVID-19 and used the app to draw up lists of contacts who were then isolated.
Other countries, including Australia, based their apps on the technology. While many nations seemed to flop at COVID tracking, Singapore fared somewhat better, even with similar technology. That success has been attributed to a culture willing to comply, combined with a government that modified behavior through other strict rules to keep the virus from spreading.
One example of the additional measures was tracking devices issued to travelers during a required one-week isolation after arriving.
In April, TT and SE became largely superfluous as their use was no longer mandatory except for select events. The efficacy of such systems relied on mass compliance so if some people weren’t using them, they were less effective anyway.
However, job postings for positions related to the program near that time sparked speculation that the system would remain in some form in the island nation, unlike in most other countries. Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) told The Register in late March 2022 the job listings were merely for replacing existing employees.
Australia quit its app in August after it was deemed a massive failure. Japan followed in September, and China discontinued use of its tracking app in December. ®
Based in Co Mayo, Ovagen now plans to add 65 jobs over the next five years and hopes to see its revenue reach €42m by the end of 2027.
Irish biotech start-up Ovagen has raised €1.1m in an oversubscribed funding round led by the Halo Business Angel Network (HBAN) for its germ-free egg production business.
Ovagen, based in Ballina, Co Mayo, is a biotech company that has developed a process of producing germ-free chicken eggs intended for use in the pharmaceutical industry for products such as vaccines.
According to Ovagen, up to 20pc – or one in five – egg-based vaccine batches are destroyed because of contamination.
Overall, more than 1bn eggs are used every year as ‘bio reactors’ to develop vaccines. Viruses are injected into the eggs to propagate the virus, which vaccine manufacturers can then use to develop vaccines for diseases including the flu, yellow fever, mumps and measles.
Dr Catherine Caulfield, CEO and co-founder of Ovagen, said that current vaccines are developed using specific pathogen free eggs, which are free of many bacteria and viruses, but they are not germ-free and a significant portion become contaminated.
“Our funders have been instrumental in supporting us on our long journey to make a concept a reality,” she said.
“At critical stages in our development, our angel investors have not only provided us with their financial backing, but they have also introduced us to other potential investors, as well as their highly influential industry contacts.”
Ovagen now aims to go to market with the “world’s first germ-free egg” in what is potentially a multimillion euro industry.
“The global potential of the company’s technology is vast and that is why this is the second time HBAN syndicates have backed Ovagen,” said Declan MacFadden, an HBAN spokesperson.
“Ovagen is now in prime position to launch its product and we are excited to see the impact that this ground-breaking development has in a highly lucrative global market.”
Following the latest investment, in which the Western Development Commission and an existing shareholder also participated, the company expects to add 65 jobs (it currently has 12 staff) over the next five years, with revenues reaching €42m by the end of 2027.
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US lawmakers held a combative hearing on Wednesday with former senior staffers at Twitter over the social media platform’s handling of reporting on Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
The proceedings set the stage for the agenda of a newly Republican-controlled House, underscoring its intention to hone in on longstanding and unsubstantiated allegations that big tech platforms have an anti-conservative bias.
The House oversight committee called for questioning recently departed Twitter employees including Vijaya Gadde, the social network’s former chief legal officer, former deputy general counsel James Baker, former head of safety and integrity Yoel Roth and former safety leader Anika Collier Navaroli.
The hearing centered on a question that has long dogged Republicans – why Twitter decided to temporarily restrict the sharing of a story about Hunter Biden in the New York Post, released in October 2020, the month before the US presidential election. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle used the opportunity to interrogate moderation practices at Twitter and other tech firms.
“The government doesn’t have any role in suppressing speech,” said Republican committee chairman James Comer, hammering the former employees for censoring the Post story.
In that report, the Post said it received a copy of a laptop hard drive from Donald Trump’s then-personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, that Hunter Biden had dropped off 18 months earlier at a Delaware computer repair shop and never retrieved. Twitter initially blocked people from sharing links to the article for several days, citing concerns over misinformation and spreading a report containing potentially hacked materials.
In opening statements on Wednesday, the former Twitter staffers described the process by which the story was blocked. While the company explicitly allowed “reporting on a hack, or sharing press coverage of hacking”, it blocked stories that shared “personal and private information – like email addresses and phone numbers” – which the Post story appeared to include. The platform amended these rules following the Biden controversy, and the then CEO, Jack Dorsey, later called the company’s communications about the Post article “not great”.
Roth, the former head of safety and integrity, said on Wednesday that Twitter acknowledged that censoring the story was a mistake.
“Defending free expression and maintaining the health of the platform required difficult judgment calls,” he said. “There is no easy way to run a global communications platform that satisfies business and revenue goals, individual customer expectations, local laws and cultural norms and get it right every time.”
Elon Musk, who purchased the company last year, has since shared a series of internal records, known as the Twitter Files, showing how the company initially stopped the story being shared, citing concerns from the Biden campaign, among other factors.
Republican theories that Democrats are colluding with big tech to suppress conservative speech have become a hot button issue in Washington, with congress members using various tech hearings to grill executives. But experts say claims of anti-conservative bias have been disproven by independent researchers.
“What we’ve seen time and again is that companies are de-platforming people who are spreading racism and conspiracy theories in violation of the company’s rule,” said Jessica J González, co-chief executive officer of the civil rights group Free Press.
“The fact that those people are disproportionately Republicans has nothing to do with it,” she added. “This is about right or wrong, not left or right.”
Musk’s decision to release information about the laptop story comes after he allowed the return of high-profile figures banned for spreading misinformation and engaging in hate speech, including the former president. The executive has shared and engaged with conspiracy theories on his personal account.
Republican lawmakers seem to have found an ally in Musk, and repeatedly praised him during Wednesday’s proceedings. The rightwing congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene used her time on the floor to personally attack the former Twitter employees and complain about her own account, which was suspended for violating the platform’s policies on coronavirus misinformation.
“I’m so glad you’ve lost your jobs,” she said. “I am so glad Elon Musk bought Twitter.”
But Democrats on Wednesday used their time in the House to explore how the Trump administration engaged with Twitter, revealing that the former president himself tried to interfere with content decisions.
In response to questioning from the new representative Maxwell Frost of Florida, the former Twitter content moderation executive Navaroli confirmed that in 2019 Trump tried to have an insulting tweet from internet personality Chrissy Teigen removed from the platform. In the tweet, which was read for the record, Teigen referred to Trump as a “pussy ass bitch”. Twitter denied the White House’s request, and it remains online today.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez further sought to disprove bias against conservative speech on Twitter when she asked about an instance in 2019, when a tweet from Trump including hate speech was kept online despite violating platform policies.
The former president told Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to their countries, a clear violation of Twitter’s policies regarding abuse against immigrants, but was not penalized, Navaroli confirmed, and the rules were changed.
“So Twitter changed their own policy after Trump violated it to accommodate his tweets?” Ocasio-Cortez said. “So much for bias against the rightwing on Twitter.”
The White House has sought to discredit the Republican investigation into Hunter Biden, calling them “divorced-from-reality political stunts”. Nonetheless, Republicans now hold subpoena power in the House, giving them the authority to compel testimony and conduct an aggressive investigation.
In opening statements at Wednesday’s hearing, Democratic representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland expressed frustration that the first tech-focused panel of the session is focused on the Hunter Biden story, which he called a “faux scandal”. He said private companies under the first amendment are free to decide what is allowed on their platforms.
“Silly does not even begin to capture this obsession,” he said of the laptop story. “What’s more, Twitter’s editorial decision has been analyzed and debated ad nauseam. Some people think it was the right decision. Some people think it was the wrong decision. But the key point here is that it was Twitter’s decision.”