As a blog focused on Internet Mechanics, Governance and Security, I have been struggling to make sense of the January 6 insurrection and the banishment of Parler to the Internet netherworld. Numerous journalists have framed the complex set of issues at work – sustained disinformation campaigns, incitement of sedition and violence, insurrection, and freedom of speech.
My instinct was to narrowly focus on the governance and technical aspects of Facebook’s and Twitter’s account terminations and the deplatforming of Parler – a Twitter-like service for the ‘alt-right’ – by Apple, Google, Amazon and other service providers. But as I dug into the governance and technical issues, I concluded that such a post would be too anodyne. More importantly, it would not capture the urgency of the issues. Somehow I resolved my conflict, inspired by 50-year old lyrics from Frank Zappa. Before examining this Zappa revelation, let’s look at some issues that sparked the attempted coup.
Events, Actors and Issues: The key events were the physical attack on the US Capitol and the rally that precipitated the attack. The main actors were the speakers that incited the mob at the rally, and the mob that carried out the physical attack on the Capitol following the rally. These events did not just spontaneously happen. The kindling was laid by a steady flow of targeted disinformation delivered over social media for years that culminated after the election in the ‘Stop-the-Steal’ campaign. Until the last few weeks, the social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Google, Parler – enabled, amplified and profited from these campaigns.
Parler: The Parler microblogging platform was founded in 2018 for the purpose of providing a ‘free-speech’ (i.e., barely moderated) alternative to Twitter for the alt-right and conspiracy communities. It was a reaction to the perception that mainstream tech companies were biased against conservatives and the GOP. In 2020, after Twitter, Facebook and Google began to affix warning labels on some ‘disputed’ tweets or posts, Parler saw a surge in registrations and users. After the events of January 6, Facebook and Twitter banned Trump from their platform, Apple and Chrome removed Parler from their app stores, and Amazon de-platformed the Parler website. Effectively, his voice on the Internet was silenced.
Deplatforming: On the Internet deplatforming occurs when a hoster or platform terminates an account for terms of service violations or illegal activity. Technically, the website domain is removed from the provider’s DNS database, so the domains no longer resolve to the IP addresses of the web servers. When violations are considered heinous (i.e., child pornography, glorification or incitement of violence, terrorism) the offender is essentially shut off by the service provider community. Cloudflare, a leading provider of Internet infrastructure services describes the complex governance issues involved in the deplatforming decision process. Cloudflare’s decision is driven not by social sensibilities but by rule of law considerations. Websites are deplatformed when they are considered lawless. While deplatforming is often seen as a dangerous infringement on free speech or the first amendment in the US, as private companies the platform providers are well within their legal rights to determine their use and governance policies. A downside of deplatforming is that it drives malicious actors underground, making it harder for law enforcement to monitor the threat.
Organizations that are terminated or deplatformed resort to counter strategies such as changing their domain name, finding other service providers with more permissive policies or in other countries with lax laws or enforcement, or going underground to the Dark Web. For a large service like Parler with millions of users, this is not a simple matter of switching servers. A preliminary analysis of Parler’s public network in the LookingGlass Scout platform (full disclosure: LookingGlass is my employer) shows that as of 10-Jan-2021 the Parler network consists of approximately 20 unique FQDNs (Fully Qualified Domain Names, i.e., subdomains of parler.com) which resolve to more than 7,700 public IPv4 addresses, nearly all of which are in separate IP blocks registered to Amazon.com AS16509 (Autonomous System).
When 8chan (in wikipedia) was deplatformed, they tried changing service providers, but eventually changed their name (now 8kun) and went underground. The Daily Stormer (in wikipedia), a notorious neo-Nazi and white supremacist site, also changed providers and went underground. Their new domain name, dailystormer[.]su (caution!), currently resolves to IP addresses announced by a Russian ISP (AS48282 – MCHOST.RU AS) and a Dutch ISP AS35415 – WEBZILLA B.V. Webzilla is owned by a Russian Internet entrepreneur connected to the Steele Dossier and numerous Russian and hacking operations. It has been described as “rife with lawlessness”.
Zappa’s Inspiration: Now, back to the late, great Frank Zappa, a brilliant musician and social critic. If you can spare 3.5 minutes and like rock, give a listen to I’m the Slime (lyrics below from lyricfind.com). Written in 1973, two-decades before the Web, Zappa exposed and laid into the ‘vile and pernicious slime that oozes from your TV set, as a tool of the government, destined to rule and regulate you’. It is perhaps an even more apt description of today’s dystopian Internet than it was fifty years ago for TV.
If we’re lucky, the deplatforming actions taken by the Internet platforms will help us avert this current crisis. But we cannot afford to rely on the enlightened self-interest of private companies. Perhaps Zappa can inspire lawmakers and industry to find the resolve needed to pass legislation that increases the costs and profits of disinformation.
“I am gross and perverted. I’m obsessed ‘n deranged. I have existed for years. But very little had changed. I am the tool of the Government, And industry too. For I am destined to rule, and regulate you. I may be vile and pernicious, but you can’t look away. I make you think I’m delicious, with the stuff that I say. I am the best you can get. Have you guessed me yet? I am the slime oozin’ out from your TV set. You will obey me while I lead you, and eat the garbage that I feed you until the day that we don’t need you. Don’t go for help…no one will heed you. Your mind is totally controlled. It has been stuffed into my mold, and you will do as you are told, until the rights to you are sold. That’s right, folks. Don’t touch that dial. Well, I am the slime from your video, oozin’ along on your livingroom floor. I am the slime from your video. Can’t stop the slime, people, lookit me go.”