When author and media critic A.J. Liebling observed long ago that “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one,” he didn't anticipate an age when, thanks to the Internet, everyone theoretically would own one—or a time when it would be all too easy to remotely stifle other people's speech via technological meddling.
One key stifling method in the Internet age has been to attack websites via techniques such as the “distributed denial of service” attack (DDoS), overloading the target servers with requests for information so that they become essentially unreachable. Sometimes these attacks come with ransom demands. Sometimes they're just the work of vandals. And sometimes they're aimed at political and social targets—DDoS is a favored tool of repressive governments and political adversaries. Unfortunately, DDoS attacks are fairly easy to mount and fairly difficult to thwart without significant technical abilities or help from people who specialize in keeping sites online in such circumstances.
Freedom of speech is getting some extra help as of this week, with the launch of a new service from a company called CloudFlare, which helps small and large enterprises stay online when the attackers hit. CloudFlare is announcing what it calls “Project Galileo,” an initiative aimed specifically at keeping free speech truly free for journalists and others who run nonprofit or small for-profit sites that can't afford what otherwise might be expensive protection.
Certain kinds of sites, anyway: To qualify for help in Project Galileo, a site will be required to meet specific criteria, according to CloudFlare:
- It is engaged in news gathering, civil society, or political/artistic speech.
- It is the subject of online attacks related to its news gathering, civil society, or political/artistic speech.
- It is a not-for-profit organization or a small commercial entity.
- It acts in the public interest, broadly defined.
Who'll do the defining? CloudFlare is partnering with an assortment of organizations that work to keep the Internet open and protect free speech. They include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mozilla, Free Press, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, and a number of others. (Disclosure: New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University, where I am a professor, in Future Tense.)
“As we've seen in the past, news organizations are most often at risk from DDoS attacks,” Trevor Timm, who runs the Freedom of the Press Foundation, one of the partner organizations, wrote me in an email. “Governments or third-party actors can attack a website to censor it when they could never have done so via the courtroom. This most notably happened to WikiLeaks, but many other smaller sites have been affected at various times as well. Protecting at-risk journalists around the world from this type of extrajudicial censorship will undoubtedly be beneficial to free speech.”
CloudFlare offered generic examples of the kinds of sites it wants to help protect, including “minority rights organizations, LGBT rights organizations in Africa or the Middle East, global citizen journalist sites, and independent media outlets in the developing world.” One such independent outlet in Sri Lanka, Groundviews, will also be a partner recommending other deserving sites in that part of the world.* Sanjana Hattotuwa, a founder and senior researcher, told me in an email that the new initiative would offer “the peace of mind that comes from knowing no matter what content goes up on the site, those who may find it inconvenient for wider, public scrutiny can’t now easily lean on DDoS attacks as a means of censorship or blackmail.”
CloudFlare isn't the only provider of this kind of protection. The EFF's Jillian York, who praised the CloudFlare initiative, noted that several small nonprofits, including Qurium/Virtual Road and Deflect, have been helping protect threatened speech for some time. So, too, has Google's too-little-known Project Shield. But CloudFlare's entry into this space is an important and valuable boost for free speech online. The company has become a major—probably the major—provider of this kind of protection, among the many other cloud services it offers to users ranging from one-person blogs to Fortune 500 companies.
Partnering with NGOs and other groups that can help identify worthy sites was aimed at keeping his and his colleagues' own political and social biases out of the selection process, Matthew Prince, CloudFlare's co-founder and CEO, told me. If an organization that meets the criteria and is recommended is doing sound work, no matter what its political or social leaning, it will be protected.
CloudFlare has customers on all parts of the political spectrum, and it has never bowed to political pressure to take a site offline, Prince said. It has removed sites under attack that couldn't afford its paid services, he said—effectively the same thing—and Project Galileo is meant to avoid that as often as possible.
I hope this deters the would-be censors, vandals and extortionists, at least to some degree. And I emphatically agree with Prince when he says this is “the right thing to do.”
*Correction, June 13, 2014: This post originally misspelled the name of the Sri Lankan media outlet Groundviews.