Once silent on InfoWars, the controversial media outlet that publishes viral conspiracy theories, consumer-facing media companies like YouTube, Facebook, Spotify, Apple, and Twitter have pulled an about-face in recent weeks, cutting ties with the website and its owner Alex Jones. The result: The ability for Jones and InfoWars to reach viewers with videos, listeners with podcasts, and followers with posts appears to have been severely curtailed.
But Jones doesn’t need these companies to reach the InfoWars audience. Instead he relies on Internet infrastructure companies—the ones that handle the unspoken plumbing of the Internet—to help distribute his views via the InfoWars website, which remains online. These companies, some publicly traded and most based in the United States, manage everything from registering the InfoWars domain name to defending the site from massive distributed denial of service attacks. They have mostly remained quiet about Jones.
Infrastructure companies have largely turned a blind eye to the objectionable content that Jones and other InfoWars hosts spew—ranging from the absurd (accusing Obama administration officials of using chemicals in water to “turn frogs gay”) to the unspeakable (alleging that the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre was faked). But those who battle for free-speech say that hesitation may be a good thing. It is too easy, they argue, for companies to pull the plug on groups who need the Internet’s freedoms most.
Does InfoWars need those protections? That’s the subject of robust debate. But here’s a look at who handles the so-called “back end” of its website, what those companies’ stated policies say, how they are at odds with some of Jones’s actions over the last year, and why some experts believe they should keep working with the toxic media outlet.
The Plumbing Is the Platform
Websites may exist in “the cloud,” but they are firmly rooted in business arrangements and on physical computing equipment. For instance, sites need domain names (which require central registration) to help users easily find them on the Web. Websites also use Web servers, which are often rented from providers that run data centers. In addition, to feed out massive amounts of video, media portals may contract with content-distribution networks (CDNs), and to block attacks and malicious behavior they may employ Internet security services.
Fortune contacted every company it could determine provides these behind-the-scenes plumbing services to InfoWars to ask how they balance their terms of service with its controversial content. That included Name.com (domain name register for InfoWars), Level 3 (its CDN), and Cloudflare (a security and threat-mitigation service), among others. Only Cloudflare responded. InfoWars also did not respond to a request from Fortune for comment.
One reason podcast providers, social networks, and video-streaming hosts have severed or suspended their relationships with Jones is because InfoWars content has violated their terms of service. In some instances, the same could be said for infrastructure companies, but there is some daylight between the consumer-facing companies’ terms and those on the InfoWars back-end.
For instance, Facebook bars hate speech, which it considers “a direct attack on people based on what we call protected characteristics—race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability.” Apple’s podcast directory prohibits “content that could be construed as racist, misogynist, or homophobic.” MailChimp broadly says you can’t use its mailing list distribution service “to promote anything illegal, or to harass anyone.”
On the back-end side, however, Cloudflare’s terms prohibit only illegal activities and copyright violations. Name.com notes it may cancel service for “allegations of illegal conduct or infringement of any third party intellectual property right.”
Level 3’s terms—or at least those it links to at its parent company—appear to be the toughest for InfoWars. Via CenturyLink’s website, Level 3 says it prohibits content that is “defamatory, libelous, tortious, threatening, abusive, hateful, or excessively violent” or websites that “advocate human violence and hate crimes based upon religion, ethnicity, or country of origin.”
It’s also worth noting that most of the infrastructure services state they can cancel service for any reason or no reason at all.
While controversy has raged about Jones’s statements across various kinds of digital media, back-end providers have only seemed willing to take action when literal Nazis are involved. Daily Stormer discovered this after its founder made atrocious statements about Heather Heyer, a counter-fascist protester killed in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The site’s domain name host, GoDaddy, booted the site from its registration service. Google Domains also rejected its registration. In addition, both a Chinese and Russian name host passed on working with Daily Stormer.
Cloudflare also cut ties with the Nazi website, but in January 2018 CEO Matthew Prince told Wired that “we’re going to err on the side of being neutral and not do what we did to the Daily Stormer again.” Cloudflare would not make any executives available to Fortune, instead pointing to a blog post published last August that made a similar point, though not as stridently, as well as an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal written by Prince.
Despite recent uproar over Jones and InfoWars, the topic of controversial content had appeared to have cooled with Internet plumbing companies until last week, when Microsoft demanded that Gab.ai remove violent, anti-Semitic posts made by an avowed neo-Nazi on its extreme-speech tolerating microblogging service, or else risk losing access to the tech giant’s Azure cloud service.
In a statement, Microsoft said, “We believe we have an important responsibility to ensure that our services are not abused by people and groups seeking to incite violence against others.”
However, Azure’s acceptable use policy doesn’t list hate speech or other abusive topics. Its closest rule bars uses that are “prohibited by law, regulation, governmental order or decree,” which means Microsoft’s anti-Nazi ultimatum could be a one-off move.
Bullying on the Bully Pulpit
While the popular consensus may be to kick InfoWars off the web, some civil-rights activists and experts worry that encouraging platforms to boot users engaging in extreme (but not necessarily illegal) speech will have a chilling effect—though not on the desired parties, which tend toward far-right belligerence.
Instead, they expect more vulnerable populations to bear the brunt, particularly people of color in areas in which they are minorities; political, gender equality, and LGBTQA activists in countries that repress opposition; and people whose faith is feared by a majority, such as Muslims in the U.S. and much of Europe.
Mike Masnick, the head of Techdirt, which publishes articles about legal and regulatory issues on the web, says he prefers infrastructure companies have a less-itchy trigger finger than public-facing platforms. “Their ability to completely shut somebody down, entirely, has me much more concerned about them making these kinds of judgements,” Masnick says, because the companies could just as easily ban lower-profile voices over unjustified copyright, defamation, or other complaints. This occurs routinely in his experience.
Masnick points out that the principle of due process, enshrined in American law, doesn’t exist in commercial relationships, though he hopes more transparency and better corporate appeals processes could emerge. Still, he agrees that companies ultimately “have the right as a private provider of who they want to associate with.”
As Electronic Frontier Foundation executive director Cindy Cohn notes, if infrastructure companies get into the business of removing customers over complaints about speech, it will have a disproportionate effect on those who already have faint voices.
“The Black Lives Matter Movement was even included in an FBI report which suggested ‘black identity extremists’ were an emerging kind of terrorist, setting that group up for more takedowns by the platforms that host their speech,” she wrote in the Georgetown Law Review in a July 2018 article about platform censorship.
And infrastructure hosts have a great basis on which to claim neutrality on most points of view. For one part, that’s because because they don’t slap their name and branding—or sell advertising—alongside the content, unlike the Twitters and YouTubes of the web. But the other is that these Internet plumbing companies have to manage the complexity of operating their back-ends in nearly every country in the world, navigating often-conflicting cultural expectations and laws. In that climate, remaining as impartial as possible about content can help avoid nation-state demands on disconnecting groups and people.
But bans by consumer-facing providers have sparked new era of scrutiny, increased demands on accountability and possibly even transparency about hosting and connectivity. And with them, ironically, begin info wars in earnest. Infrastructure companies may not be able to stay out of the fight forever.