Hidden Censors: How Indirect Intermediaries Shape Online Speech

Most discussion about how intermediaries curate and censor speech on the Internet has focused on the actions of “direct intermediaries”: social media platforms. Little work has examined the role of the “indirect” or “upstream” intermediaries in Internet infrastructure like certificate authorities, web hosts, and DNS resolvers which perform hidden functions allowing websites to exist. Indirect intermediaries are farther removed from content than social media platforms and can thus better claim to be “intermediaries”; the answers to the earlier questions, therefore, will be different for indirect intermediaries. This paper examines the role of indirect intermediaries in shaping speech on the Internet in America and argues that these institutions should be content-neutral, serving all customers regardless of their site’s content. We first examine how each layer of the Internet functions; then consider historical controversies over censorship at each level and risk factors for future censorship in America. The second half of the paper will consider how companies and lawmakers should address these questions in the future. I argue that the principle of “net neutrality” should apply to all indirect intermediaries, not only ISPs: no Internet infrastructure company should censor content passing through their services.