Alt-Tech and the Radical Right, Part 1: Why the Shift?

Introduction

Distributed web, cryptocurrencies, blockchain-based video live-streaming are some of the so-called “Alt-Tech” tools that some radical right actors are beginning to use as they continue to be removed from regular social media platforms such as Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter. In this series of articles, I’ll break down how a few of the key Alt-Tech tools work, and show how they are being used to further hate by the radical right.

Toward a Heuristic: The Internet Infrastructure Stack

Just to make sure everyone is on the same page, it’s worth reviewing the layered infrastructure that powers the Internet. At the top of the stack are the apps and social media services that users interact with directly. These include social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, music apps like Spotify, blogging platforms like WordPress, and online stores like Etsy and Amazon.

Next are the hosting and routing layers that make all these services available. The hosting layer is pretty complicated, but for the sake of brevity we can include everything from web hosts like GoDaddy and Dreamhost to cloud providers like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and even domain name registration companies like Web.com or Network Solutions. If we think about what technologies “enable” the higher layers, we should even include payment processors like Venmo and Paypal and credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard at this level.

At the bottom of the stack are the largely invisible companies that actually connect individuals and organizations to the Internet and ensure its basic functionality. These include Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and telephone companies like Verizon, as well as content delivery networks (CDN) and distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) protection services like Akamai and Cloudflare, and domain name service (DNS) providers like OpenDNS (now Cisco Umbrella) and Dyn (now Oracle Dyn).

The companies closer to the top of that stack usually have Terms of Use policies describing behavior that is disallowed on their service, for example copyright infringement, harassment, illegal activity, adult content, and so on. Traditionally, when Internet users come in contact with content they believe violates those Terms, they complain and sometimes the platform provider will remove the offending content. Sometimes the companies will even attempt to ban repeat offenders, with varying levels of success.

However, the further we go down the infrastructure stack, the less likely a company will be held responsible for content that passes through it. The “dumb pipe” argument typically goes something like this: should we hold the telephone company responsible for everything that people say while talking on a telephone?

The question is, what happens to all the companies in the middle and the top of the stack where the guidelines are not so clear? How much responsibility does an infrastructure company bear for controlling user content?

In August 2017, Matthew Prince of Cloudflare wrote a now infamous blog in which he critiqued his own (then recent) decision to cancel DDOS protection services for neo-Nazi web site The Daily Stormer. He was worried that Cloudflare, which he positions as a lower-level infrastructure provider, should not be in the business of “content policing” and that his actions in terminating The Daily Stormer were (rather hyperbolically) “the day the Internet die[d].”

A Radical Right Backlash: The Building of an Alternate Internet

 But as right-wing extremism and terrorism run rampant on social media, more and more companies at all levels of the infrastructure stack are now grappling with their roles and responsibilities in diffusing hate. The Christchurch, New Zealand massacre laid bare the truth of so-called ‘autodidactic radicalization’: the killer cemented his radicalization on social media, chose to broadcast his terror on social media, and peppered his manifesto and video with references to extremist social media memes.

In the face of widespread de-platforming that started after the deadly Charlottesville car attack in 2017 and continuing in fits and spurts following the Christchurch massacre, neo-Nazis and fascists are now attempting to build an alternate Internet. It will have minimalist Terms of Use, principals who are committed to as little intervention as possible, and will be based on inherently decentralized technologies such as distributed file systems and cryptocurrencies.

This nascent Alt-Tech landscape in 2019 is substantially different from the clone ecosystem that emerged largely as a reaction to de-platforming after Charlottesville. For example, the social media service Gab was created in 2017 as a “free speech” alternative to Twitter. Gab became well-known after Robert Bowers used it to broadcast his final words before entering the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October of 2018, killing 11 and wounding six.

More recently, Gab has launched additional Alt-Tech tools that attempt to extend its reach to become more than just a hateful Twitter clone. One is an in-browser extension called “Dissenter” that attempts to layer a censorship-free comment section on top of any web address. Dissenter has now been banned from both the Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox stores. In response, Gab announced that it will create its own browser by forking, or creating new software based upon, the free and open source Brave web browser.

Gab has also cultivated a close relationship with Epik.com, another profiteer on the Alt-Tech frontier. When Gab lost its domain hosting in the wake of the Bowers massacre, Epik.com stepped in and provided replacement services. It did the same for conspiracy peddlers Infowars and neo-Nazi radio podcast network Radio Wehrwolf. Epik also owns Sibyl, Gab’s web host, as well as Anonymize, a virtual private network, and BitMitigate, an upstart CDN and DDOS-protection company that has shielded The Daily Stormer after it was booted from Cloudflare in 2017.

Conclusion

Companies like Gab and Epik are therefore clearly taking the lead in building solutions that shield extremists from de-platforming at the lower levels of the internet infrastructure stack. But while VPNs and CDNs might be technically important, but they are not typically top of mind for users, investors, or regulators. So, aside from Gab, what is Alt-Tech creating for the user-facing application space?

In the next article in this series, we will investigate the Alt-Tech audio and video landscape, including podcasts, and live video streaming. Back in 2017, Youtube users watched a billion hours of video content per day on that platform alone. Radical right extremists love to record – and can earn money from – videos and create live streams on Youtube, Facebook, and Twitch. But as more extremists are de-platformed or de-monetized on these services, where are they going next?

Professor Megan Squire is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Professor of Computer Science at Elon University in North Carolina, USA. See her profile here.

© Megan Squire. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).