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Web Hosts, Services Connecting Websites To The Internet, Gain More Power


We talk a lot about the choices that social media platforms make. What kinds of speech do Facebook or Twitter block? But a less visible part of the Web may be more powerful. It decides whether an online platform survives or goes dark. NPR's Bobby Allyn reports on one front in the fight over online speech.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: If you want to run a site on the Internet, you need a Web host, the service that actually connects a website to the Internet.

GREG FALCO: There's guts of the Web that no one ever wants to see or deal with or think about.

ALLYN: Well, Greg Falco, a Stanford security researcher, says it might be time to start thinking about it. Web hosting companies have the levers to vast online infrastructure and complete discretion to pull those levers as they see fit. That means they can decide which websites live or die.

FALCO: The question becomes tricky of like, when do you actually take someone down? It's a really gray territory. The reality is it comes down to understanding when it reaches some public attention, when there is actually physical implications.

ALLYN: For instance, a group of people who go to a website to plan to overthrow government and then use the site to document the attempt by posting photos and videos of the violence. That's the scenario that faced Amazon Web Services, one of the biggest players in the Web hosting world. One of its clients was the social media site Parler, which was filled with post by pro-Trump extremists before and during the storming of the U.S. Capitol. Amazon stopped hosting Parler and the site went dark. To many, this revealed the power of Web hosting, says former Netflix executive Dave Temkin. He's an expert in the infrastructure of the Internet.

DAVE TEMKIN: It's absolutely invisible. It just kind of works, and no one knows what it is until it breaks.

ALLYN: In justifying cutting Parler off, Amazon said it had warned Parler of 98 examples of posts that, quote, "clearly encourage and incite violence." That went against Amazon's terms of service. If Parler didn't clean up its act, Amazon would hit the kill switch. And that's what happened. To Harvard's Evelyn Douek, who studies online speech, it was a big moment. It raised questions about the power of Web hosts.

EVELYN DOUEK: Is that the right place for content moderation to be occurring? Because it's harder to bring accountability to those choices when we don't even know who's making them or how they're being made.

ALLYN: In other words, when a Web host has a problem with content, usually these discussions are hashed out between two companies, out of the public light. And Web hosts, unlike social media platforms, aren't used to having to explain these decisions. Another issue, Douek says, is who polices the Web host? She pointed to the 98 pieces of objectionable content Amazon cited about Parler.

DOUEK: That - it sort of made me laugh a little bit because, like, has Amazon read the rest of the Internet? Like, 98 pieces of content - or whatever it was - is not that many. I mean, has Amazon read Amazon?

ALLYN: The old idea of the Internet as a marketplace of ideas where the best will rise to the top no longer applies. That's being fiercely reconsidered by both social media and the companies that do Web hosting. Temkin, the former Netflix executive, agrees. But he also noted that Web hosts, even those as big as Amazon, can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of sites they serve.

TEMKIN: You know, if you're AWS and you've got hundreds of thousands of customers, you can't actively police what each of those customers are doing with your service.

ALLYN: But if you're the one banned from Amazon, why not just find another Web host? Well, Parler has tried, and it's not that easy. The last six Web hosts Parler has approached have all said, no thanks. Parler now only has a shell of a site where no one can post.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
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