Internet companies typically take a hands-off approach to offensive content on their networks, erring on the side of maintaining an open internet. But this approach sometimes ends in PR disaster. For Twitter, the debate has bubbled up in the form of rampant harassment, and the company has responded by slowly, grudgingly blocking high-profile harassers from its platform. For YouTube, the debate has focused on ISIS propaganda and other extremist videos. After a violent weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia that ended with a protester being killed, that fight has focused on GoDaddy, Cloudflare, and other companies that provide web hosting and DDoS protection for neo-Nazi websites such as The Daily Stormer.
Matthew Prince of Cloudflare speaks onstage during day two of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2015. Photo: Getty
Today, Cloudflare reversed its long-held policy to remain content-neutral and booted The Daily Stormer out from behind its DDoS protection service.
“This was my decision. This is not Cloudflare’s general policy now, going forward,” Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince told Gizmodo. “I think we have to have a conversation over what part of the infrastructure stack is right to police content.”
Prince explained in an internal email to staffers that he doesn’t think CEOs of internet companies should be in the position of policing content on their networks — he told Gizmodo he thinks that’s a job that should ultimately be left up to law enforcement if the content violates the law — but felt pushed to act because the operators of the Daily Stormer are “assholes”.
“I realised there was no way we were going to have that conversation with people calling us Nazis,” Prince said. “The Daily Stormer site was bragging on their bulletin boards about how Cloudflare was one of them and that is the opposite of everything we believe. That was the tipping point for me.”
But leaving these decisions to CEOs like himself is exactly what Prince doesn’t want — and that’s why Cloudflare isn’t changing its content-neutral policy going forward. Instead, Prince wants to spark a conversation about how tech should respond to abhorrent content, and whether content should be policed by registrars, browsers or social networks.
“We need to have a discussion around this, with clear rules and clear frameworks. My whims and those of Jeff [Bezos] and Larry [Page] and Satya [Nadella] and Mark [Zuckerberg], that shouldn’t be what determines what should be online,” he said. “I think the people who run The Daily Stormer are abhorrent. But again I don’t think my political decisions should determine who should and shouldn’t be on the internet.”
Here’s the email Prince sent to staffers today explaining his decision:
Earlier today Cloudflare terminated the account of the Daily Stormer. We’ve stopped proxying their traffic and stopped answering DNS requests for their sites. We’ve taken measures to ensure that they cannot sign up for Cloudflare’s services again.
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.
Having made that decision we now need to talk about why it is so dangerous. I’ll be posting something on our blog later today. Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.
[Cloudflare employee’s name redacted] asked after I told him what we were going to do: “Is this the day the Internet dies?” He was half joking, but I actually think it’s an important question. It’s important that what we did today not set a precedent. The right answer is for us to be consistently content neutral. But we need to have a conversation about who and how the content online is controlled. We couldn’t have that conversation while the Daily Stormer site was using us. Now, hopefully, we can.
I’ll be publishing a blog post with all our thoughts on this issue in a few hours. Until then, I’d ask that you not talk about this externally.
Co-founder & CEO
Prince has since published a blog post on Cloudflare’s site discussing the reasons behind his decision. Removing Cloudflare’s protection opens sites up to vigilante DDoS attacks, Prince explained.
“The size and scale of the attacks that can now easily be launched online make it 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,” he wrote. “But having the mechanism of content control be vigilante hackers launching DDoS attacks subverts any rational concept of justice.”