Cloudflare was widely applauded in August after it ceased services to 8chan, the anonymous message board popular with far-right extremists and a variety of fringe groups. But the company, which provides internet infrastructure and security solutions, says that its decision to suspend support of 8chan highlights a fundamental issue regarding the limits of free speech and internet policing.
"We should be the last defense and not the first defense," said Michelle Zatlyn, Cloudflare's co-founder and COO.
Cloudflare's decision on 8chan, which effectively took the platform offline, was made after it was revealed that the gunman that killed 22 people in a mass shooting in El Paso had published a racist, hate-filled manifesto on the message board prior to the attack. The white supremacist mass shooters who attacked a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March and a synagogue in Poway, California in April also posted manifestos on 8chan.
"Unfortunately the action we take today won't fix hate online," Matthew Prince, Cloudflare's CEO, said in a statement in August. "It will almost certainly not even remove 8chan from the Internet. But it is the right thing to do. Hate online is a real issue."
Founded a decade ago in San Francisco, Cloudflare has grown to offer an array of cloud-based internet services, which range from website optimization tools to advanced DDoS protection. The company says it blocks 44 billion cyber threats a day. "We are like plumbing for the internet," explained Zatlyn, whose company services major organizations like IBM, Reuters, and the Library of Congress.
Yet Cloudflare's long-held, open-for-business position on neutrality — "we are going to be Switzerland," as Zatlyn put it — has gained it some highly controversial clients and forced the company to make decisions it feels are beyond the scope of its responsibility.
"What would be better is for the platforms to have clear rules and for the regulators to pass laws," Zatlyn said. "We didn't think that the plumbers ... should be making decisions about which services online should and shouldn't have access" to infrastructure solutions.
Zatlyn added that in the absence of a regulatory framework, the company will take action when a platform, like 8chan, becomes "lawless."
In 2017, Cloudflare also terminated its service for the Daily Stormer, the white supremacist, neo-Nazi website. That decision, the company said, was not made in response to the hateful content, but came after the Daily Stormer falsely accused Cloudflare of supporting its ideology.
"Like a lot of people, we've felt angry at these hateful people for a long time, but we have followed the law and remained content neutral as a network. We could not remain neutral after these claims of secret support by Cloudflare," Prince said at the time.
Despite the praise heaped upon Cloudflare for its action taken against the 8chan and the Daily Stormer, Zatlyn maintains that decisions regarding internet content and free speech should be made by lawmakers and the public, not infrastructure and security providers. In fact, Zatlyn says, providing such services to the "broadest set of customers possible is actually better for the internet."