Earlier this week, I wrote that Charlottesville could mark an inflection point in the battle over online speech. Not only were social media platforms suddenly getting serious about cracking down on the racist “alt-right,” but back-end web infrastructure companies—which have typically pled neutrality with regard to the content of the sites they serve—suddenly found themselves under intense pressure to do the same. First, the domain registrar GoDaddy dropped the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer; Google Domains and others quickly followed suit.
But there remained one notable holdout: Cloudflare, a server company that specializes in protecting sites against DDoS hacks, was still serving the Daily Stormer—insisting, as it has in the past when challenged to defend controversial clients, that policing online speech is not and should not be its job.
That changed on Wednesday, when Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince woke up “in a bad mood” and decided to pull the plug on the Daily Stormer. His memo to employees, published in full by Gizmodo, dripped with bitter ambivalence. Here’s an excerpt (italics mine):
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. … 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.
Prince followed up with an official Cloudflare blog post further explaining his sudden change of heart. His “bad mood,” it seems, had been stoked by the Daily Stormer’s boasting that Cloudflare secretly supported its racist ideology. The post went on to argue, forcefully and in detail, that a system in which a company such as Cloudflare can make such a decision on a whim is a flawed one. And while Prince expressed no regret about pulling the plug on the Daily Stormer specifically, he worried that in doing so, he had opened a door that would have been better left shut. He wrote: “After today, make no mistake, it will be a little bit harder for us to argue against a government somewhere pressuring us into taking down a site they don't like.”
That’s probably true, and it echoes the concerns raised by high-tech law expert Eric Goldman in my Slate story and by the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Nate Cardozo in a story by The Verge’s Russell Brandom.
That said, anyone who fears a slippery slope toward corporate censorship of the web can take at least some comfort in the way Cloudflare communicated its decision. While there’s no guarantee that the CEO of such a company will regard its own huge power over web companies with due awe, suspicion, and fear, it’s reassuring to know that Prince, for one, does. Perhaps the operative metaphor here is not a slippery slope, but a high bar: one that only a group as unambiguously disgusting and evil as neo-Nazis could clear.
But that seems a little naïve. Already, calls are growing for Cloudflare, GoDaddy, and other web-infrastructure firms to ban a slew of other groups affiliated with the white supremacist movement. Does anyone doubt that conservative pressure groups will gleefully adopt the same tactic against left-wing targets?
Cloudflare may seem like a small part of what makes the web run, but it isn’t: The company says it handles something on the order of 10 percent of all internet requests. That actually understates its influence, because Cloudflare is by far the market leader in DDoS protection, and its clients tend to be those most vulnerable to such attacks. Posting controversial content on the web without Cloudflare’s protection is like strutting out onto a battlefield naked with a target painted on your back. There are a handful other other, mostly very large, companies that play similarly critical roles in maintaining the modern internet. As Prince put it: “Without a clear framework as a guide for content regulation, a small number of companies will largely determine what can and cannot be online.”
Prince’s call for such a framework is probably the most important part of his memo. As Goldman pointed out to me, the problem with companies such as GoDaddy, Google, and Cloudflare dropping the Daily Stormer was not that the Daily Stormer deserves to have its vile viewpoints heard. Rather, the problem is that the decision was made on an ad hoc basis, with GoDaddy and Google disingenuously holding up their terms of service as a fig leaf.
The reality is that few, if any, of these companies, have ever thought seriously about those terms of service or enforced them consistently. Companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter have been thinking through these issues and refining their policies for over a decade, and they still get big decisions appallingly wrong on a frequent basis. If you think they’re bad at distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate content, imagine how ham-fisted a company like GoDaddy is likely to be—especially given that the only punishment at its disposal has been compared to the Internet’s version of the death penalty. And the notion that we can count on the free market to supply alternatives to overzealous service providers is undermined by the industry's huge barriers to entry. You can’t just go out and start an “indie” Cloudflare, because only a sprawling global network of servers could do what it does.
That the internet has made it this far depending on infrastructure built and maintained by unaccountable, largely unregulated, private corporations is something of a miracle. But the alarming recent rise in explicit online hate, intimidation, and organized racism and violence in the United States—and the corresponding rise in public awareness of it—has brought the system’s underlying flaws into sharp relief. Perhaps we do need companies like GoDaddy and Cloudflare to take a more active role in deciding what should be allowed on the Internet. But if so, we also urgently need them to develop some ground rules for those decisions that go beyond “we’ll enforce our terms of service when we feel like it.”