Hard lessons for Australia from the Drop Kiwi Farms campaign

On 5 August 2022, trans female Twitch streamer Clara Sorrenti, also known as Keffals, was swatted and arrested after an email containing death threats purporting to be signed by her was sent to members of the city council of London, Ontario. The email was clearly fake, riddled with grammatical errors and including Sorrenti’s deadname, which she had not been using for years. Nonetheless, the arrest led to Sorrenti being detained, having her property taken and suffering severe transphobic harassment from the police. The incident was part of a prolonged series of hate crimes perpetrated by users of far-right terrorist website Kiwi Farms.

Kiwi Farms’ activity involved targeted stalking, harassment and violence towards marginalised people, particularly neurodivergent trans feminine people. The suicides of at least three trans women have been attributed directly to years-long harassment from the website, and the perpetrator of the Christchurch mosque shooting was a known user of the website. Kiwi Farms also published the attacker’s manifesto, which led to the website being blocked in New Zealand—although not in Australia, despite the attacker being an Australian national.

Australia’s connections to Kiwi Farms don’t stop there. Transgender activist and Kiwi Farms victim Liz Fong-Jones noted that Kiwi Farms has operated using an IP address leased to an Australian shell company by the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC). Kiwi Farms’ company, 1776 Solutions LLC, uses IP space assigned from Australian company Flow Chemical Pty Ltd. Fong-Jones has used this information to request the eSafety Commissioner that the APNIC be asked to withdraw hosting for 1776 Solutions, an act which would take Kiwi Farms offline, and something well within the rights given Australia’s incredibly tight online speech restrictions. However, no such action was ever taken.

The attack on Sorrenti motivated her to join a long-standing campaign to have the website taken down. The campaign was mostly directed at Cloudflare, an American content delivery network whose services kept Kiwi Farms active. Cloudflare are known for their continued support for fascist websites including The Daily Stormer. In a statement during Sorrenti’s campaign, they claimed that their motivation for doing so was a refusal to take a political role.

At this time, Cloudflare had already dropped Switter, a social media network for sex workers, citing concerns regarding FOSTA, a federal act that increases criminalisation of sex work in the United States. Switter’s parent company, Assembly Four, was also based in Australia, where FOSTA doesn’t apply. Cloudflare’s general counsel, Doug Kramer, has criticised FOSTA but claimed that the company had an obligation to comply with the law. Eliza Sorensen, the co-founder of Assembly Four, spoke to me about her reaction to this:

I woke up to a vague email from Cloudflare saying they had terminated our services without notice (or a blog post) for breaching their terms. Initially I thought we were being trolled as Cloudflare had a reputation for not only hosting sex worker content, but they had actively supported escorting platforms in the past publicly. We were using Cloudflare prior to the passage of the FOSTA/SESTA package, so given that other escorting and adult platforms were (& still are) using their service we thought we would at least be given notice if we were to have our services terminated, but we were very wrong.

Julie Inman Grant, the current Australian eSafety commissioner, has been openly hostile to sex worker platforms. In 2021, she appeared on a podcast run by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), an organisation that has a history of connections to the far-right and making unscientific claims about the effects of pornography. The podcast was released just weeks after the Online Safety Act was passed by Parliament, granting Inman Grant a range of powers over the regulation of internet content, and raising concerns from the sex worker and queer communities. In response, Inman Grant blamed ‘angry porn people and the LGBTQI+ community’ for spreading ‘misinformation’ about the interview—this, in spite of the fact that the NCOSE had explicitly stated that its mission is to ‘eradicate all pornography’. Sorensen commented at the time that:

There is an increasingly worrying trend not just in Australia, but worldwide, where policymakers from government, private industry and not for profits attempt to regulate the internet and technology without properly assessing whether or not the proposed solutions cause more harm than the mischief they’re trying to manage and whether or not the proposed solutions are proportionate.

After the Online Safety Act was introduced by the Coalition government, Inman Grant stated that it made Australia a ‘world leader’ in online safety, and that it would help the country tackle ‘cyber bullying’, ‘sexual predators’ and ‘vile Internet trolls’. Her refusal to protect the likes of sex workers or trans women by taking action against Kiwi Farms shows otherwise.

Despite Cloudflare’s long-standing reluctance to drop Kiwi Farms, the company ultimately reversed its position and blocked the website earlier this month, stating that it was in response to ‘an unprecedented emergency and immediate threat to human life’. There were attempts to keep the website running on a Russian domain with the Russian-based service provider DDoS-Guard, but even that idea was abandoned within less than a day. Furthermore, a campaign by Yonah Gerber—a Jewish non-binary person who had been attacked by the website for years—led to the Internet Archive excluding Kiwi Farms from being archived at the Wayback Machine and deleting all the threads containing personal details of the website’s targets.

For her part, the Australian eSafety commissioner never even commented on Kiwi Farms until after Cloudflare dropped it themselves. To say that Australian officials were complacent in keeping the website operational for as long as it was would be an understatement. Australia was directly responsible for the continued existence of the website as well as the harm that it caused.

While the fight against Kiwi Farms caught media attention from all across the world, this connection received little coverage in Australia, save from articles in Crikey and the Guardian in the days immediately before and after the shutdown. The former Liberal candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves, had been a known user of the forum, referring to it as ‘valuable’. Given her high profile during the election campaign, there is no excuse for ignoring her patronage of a forum that hosted footage of the worst terrorist attack ever committed by an Australian national. While Pedestrian reported this connection, many others, including the ABC—which routinely covered Deves during the campaign—opted to never mention it. The omissions have extended to our queer-specific press: while British news site Pink News reported on the campaign against Kiwi Farms, our own queer news sources, such as the Star Observerdid not.

The effects of this deafening silence are chilling. At a time when the far right—of which organised transphobia is a more and more common expression—is being mainstreamed in our media and our political landscape, it demonstrates once again that marginalised people can’t rely on institutions such as the eSafety Commission or the fourth estate to protect us.

There is no telling how many lives were saved the day that Sorrenti’s campaign became successful. I would like this to be cause for celebration, but I think it should serve as motivation. With very little to rely on to help us, the best we can do is help ourselves. And, as Sorrenti showed, even a month-long campaign can bring about effective change. Opting to turn a blind eye would be tantamount to collusion.

Natalie Feliks

Natalie Feliks is a writer, activist and critic from Melbourne. Follow her on Twitter at @nataliesqrl.

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