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Who Gets to Decide Who Has a Voice Online?

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Yesterday, the last domino in a long chain fell when Cloudflare terminated its service with the Daily Stormer, a white-supremacist website. Cloudflare, which provides a number of services that work behind the scenes to make websites more stable and faster, had spent months debating the ultimate problem customer. In an internal email yesterday, obtained by Gizmodo, CEO Matthew Prince was blunt in assessing how the company had finally reached its decision: Prince had exercised his ultimate authority on the matter.

He wrote:

This was my decision. Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion. My rationale for making this decision was simple: the people behind the Daily Stormer are assholes and I’d had enough.

Let me be clear: this was an arbitrary decision. It was different than what I’d talked talked with our senior team about yesterday. I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet. I called our legal team and told them what we were going to do. I called our Trust & Safety team and had them stop the service. It was a decision I could make because I’m the CEO of a major Internet infrastructure company.

In many ways, Prince’s statement is commendable in its bluntness, and in how it lays out concerns about content regulation online. In recent months, companies have banned Nazis and white supremacists, shielded behind terms-of-service agreements and legalese. Prince just calls the Daily Stormer ilk what they are: “assholes.”

“Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet,” he said, which is true in that the end effect is the disappearance of the Daily Stormer (for now), but as is usually the case, a bit more complicated on a technical level.

The termination of Cloudflare service doesn’t prevent Andrew Anglin, the primary figure behind the Daily Stormer, from accessing the internet. Hell, it doesn’t even prevent Anglin from hosting a website. Cloudflare’s services are infrastructural add-ons that kept the site stable and occluded who was actually hosting it.

One of Cloudflare’s most popular services is DDoS protection, which prevents sites experiencing huge influxes of traffic from getting overwhelmed and knocked offline. One would assume that the Daily Stormer, an obvious target for cyberattack, made heavy use of this.

A second important Cloudflare service is its role as a CDN, or content-delivery network, a distributed network of servers spread geographically that propagate a site’s content across the globe. That way, if you connect to a site based halfway around the world, a user might be served the request from a server only a few miles away from their endpoint much more quickly. As the Verge noted, “[B]y distributing [the site] through a broader network, the company made it impossible to discover the original host, which made it difficult for activists to take direct action against the site.”

To reiterate, Cloudflare declined supplementary hosting services to a hate site, it didn’t kick anyone “off the internet” directly. On alt-right Twitter clone Gab, Anglin wrote that the termination of Cloudflare service “adds another layer of super complexity, but we got this.” That’s because, as crazy as it may seem, the internet allows anyone to host a website, provided they have the right hardware and technical know-how. Services provided by the likes of GoDaddy, and Google, and Cloudflare make it easy to host a website, but they don’t make it possible.

There are caveats to this. In his blog post on the topic, Prince pointed out that the scale of DDoS attacks now is “such that if you don’t have a network like Cloudflare in front of your content, and you upset anyone, you will be knocked offline.” I think my larger point stands, though. Everyone should have the equal and unrestricted ability to make content requests across the vast network of the internet — that’s net neutrality. But requesting is different from hosting, and nobody has an inherent right to hosting space and site stability.

In his post, Prince wrote that “the people behind the Daily Stormer are assholes and I’d had enough.” Had enough of what? Enough criticism from people about how Cloudflare was aiding white supremacy online? The tipping point, Prince told Gizmodo, was when Daily Stormer’s former users began bragging about Cloudflare as “one of them.”

Cloudflare has millions of customers and handles “around 10% of Internet requests.” It can’t be expected to know exactly what all of its clients are publishing. That’s not what happened here. At some point, a platform’s scale mistakenly became an accepted excuse for knowingly allowing virulent, terrible stuff to reside on it. But Cloudflare definitely knew about Daily Stormer: In May, ProPublica reported that Cloudflare would pass along to the Daily Stormer identifying info about people who complained about the site, inciting harassment against the complainants. The company says it has since changed how it handles these complaints.

Retaining the Daily Stormer as a client by means of “content neutrality” is a moral decision. This isn’t like a Nazi going out and buying a pair of New Balances off the shelf with a one-time transaction. It is a sustained business arrangement with a monthly fee collected (Cloudflare does offer a free tier of DDoS protection).

Of course, it’s a dangerous situation when only a handful of companies and platforms are in the position to control what gets posted online. Platforms and infrastructure providers — like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon (whose most profitable sector is web-hosting), and yes, Cloudflare — hold an enormous, and I would say dangerous, amount of power over who gets to access what.

There is a solution to this, but it’s a road that no large tech company wants to go down: government regulation. Prince glances against this in his post, discussing how due process is a more apt frame for online activity than freedom of speech. Basically, know the rules of the platform you’re using, so you’re not surprised when it kicks you off for violation. “Law enforcement, legislators, and courts have the political legitimacy and predictability to make decisions on what content should be restricted,” Prince writes. “Companies should not.”

This puts most large companies in a bit of a bind. Facebook, in particular, has spent the last year trying to avoid any responsibility for what its users post, as it profits off of them at the same time. The clearest way — maybe the only way — to shirk moral responsibility for enabling online publishing is to submit to government regulation, like utility companies do. That way, when people complain about white supremacists on the platform, they can respond with “our hands are tied.”

If these platforms truly believe that hosting space is a right, then they should enshrine that right in law. Until then, they should continue to expect blowback, criticism, and pressure for making the choice to continue doing business with hate groups.

Who Gets to Decide Who Has a Voice Online?