Cloudflare can cancel service on horrible sites like Kiwi Farms. But should he?

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There were many cheers over internet midwife Cloudflare canceling services to controversial 8chan heir Kiwi Farms. If history is any indication, however, Cloudflare’s decision will do little to stop online hate and harassment. In the meantime, that takes us even further away from the kind of neutrality that typically guides internet infrastructure companies (i.e. things like web hosting, cybersecurity, and newsletter services). And the further we stray from that neutrality, the worse the consequences for all sorts of online discourse and organizing.

Cloudflare is a private company and perfectly free to offer services to any entity of its choice. But whatever should— and whether he made the right call with Kiwi Farms — is up for debate.

The backstory

Until recently, Cloudflare, a popular provider of all sorts of back-end services that keep websites running smoothly, provided security services for Kiwi Farms, an internet forum that The Guardian calls it “the worst place on the web”. Indeed, Cloudflare has helped Kiwi Farms avoid the type of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks that could bring the platform down.

Kiwi Farms was founded by a former 8chan admin and known as a space for people to plan organized harassment campaigns against disadvantaged groups or individuals. Recently, “farmers” targeted Canadian activist and Twitch streamer Clara “Keffals” Sorrenti. They coordinated takedown requests from her Twitch account, doxxed her, and conspired to send a SWAT team to her house, among other despicable things.

In response, Sorrenti, who was arrested after someone called the police impersonating her and threatening violence, led a campaign to have Cloudflare stop serving Kiwi Farms.

Initially, Cloudflare resisted. Its founder and CEO Matthew Prince – who has described himself as “almost a free speech absolutist” – and public policy officer Alissa Starzak wrote a blog post on August 31 explaining the moderation policies of content from Cloudflare and why they think “voluntarily terminating access to services that protect against cyberattacks is not the right approach.”

“Some argue that we should shut down these services with content we deem objectionable so that others can launch attacks to take it offline,” Prince and Starzak noted. “It’s the equivalent argument in the physical world that firefighters shouldn’t respond to fires in the homes of people who don’t possess sufficient moral character. Both in the physical world and online, it’s a dangerous precedent, and which is, in the long term, most likely to disproportionately harm vulnerable and marginalized communities.”

Play Whack-a-Mole

Cloudflare has not always acted in accordance with its professed principle against service termination. In 2017, she canceled the account of the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer. And in 2019, it canceled the services of the right-wing fringe forum 8chan.

The Daily Stormer reappeared elsewhere. 8chan too. Which brings us to an uncomfortable truth about the global internet age.

“If the new 8chan has met the fate of the old 8chan, what will stop a new Kiwi Farms from appearing in a short time?” as Freddie deBoer said. “It turns out that extremism is not so easily eradicated in a digitally connected world; you may be able to kill a site, but until you kill the human attitudes that such a site reveals, you will never really have solved the problem.”

In other words, the problem is not expression of extremist opinions, it is extremist views. Removing a digital channel for offensive speech or organized harassment doesn’t change the underlying feelings and can only harden people into their extremist views. Feeling marginalized and attacked is powerful for building community and solidarity. (See, for example, former President Donald Trump.)

To their credit, Cloudflare executives seem to recognize this, and the danger of starting to choose customers based on those customers’ perspectives.

Is Cloudflare like a telephone company?

After terminating the services of 8chan and the Daily Stormer, “we have seen a dramatic increase in authoritarian regimes trying to get us to terminate the security services of human rights organizations – often quoting us the language of our own vindication,” Prince and Starzak wrote in their Aug. 31 blog post.

These past experiences led Cloudflare executives to conclude “that the power to terminate security services for sites is not a power Cloudflare should have,” Prince and Starzak write. “Not because the content on those sites wasn’t obnoxious – it was – but because security services are most like Internet utilities.”

“Just as the telephone company does not terminate your line if you say horrible, racist or bigoted things, we have concluded, in consultation with politicians, policymakers and experts, that deactivating security services because we think what you post is despicable is the wrong politics,” they added.

This seems like a prudent policy and the most protective of speech in a broad sense – including, yes, neo-Nazi and troll speech, but also any speech that most people would recognize as desirable and even vital.

(Notably, Prince and Starzak write that they will “terminate security services for illegal content in the United States,” including “content subject to the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). But, otherwise, we believe that cyberattacks are something that everyone should be free from.” FOSTA said Section 230 does not apply where prostitution is involved. What a crazy world we live in where platforms promoting labor consensual adult sex are essentially prohibited by law to be protected against cyberattacks…)

Kiwi Farms: an “immediate threat to human life”?

But does Kiwi Farms present an exceptional case? Cloudflare’s CEO seems to think so.

On September 3, Cloudflare decided to terminate the Kiwi Farm service. “We have blocked Kiwafarms. Visitors to any of the Kiwafarms sites who use any of Cloudflare’s services will see a Cloudflare block page and a link to this message,” Prince wrote in another blog post.

It doesn’t appear to be a decision the company took lightly. “This is an extraordinary decision for us to make and, given Cloudflare’s role as an Internet infrastructure provider, a dangerous decision that we are not comfortable with,” Prince wrote. “However, the rhetoric on the Kiwifarms site and the specific and targeted threats have escalated over the past 48 hours to the point where we believe there is an unprecedented urgency and immediate threat to human life contrary to what we’ve seen before from Kiwifarms or any other customer before.”

Prince insisted it was not simply “revolting content” that prompted the company to act and that the decision did not come in response to Sorrenti’s lobbying campaign.

“While we believe that in all other situations we have faced – including the Daily Stormer and 8chan – it would have been appropriate as an infrastructure provider for us to await legal proceedings, in this case the imminent and urgent threat to human life that continues to escalate compels us to take this action,” Prince wrote.

“Hard cases make bad law,” he added. “This is a difficult case and we would caution anyone to see a precedent in it.”

Create a precedent ?

It’s reassuring to see Cloudflare take the broader implications of cutting service at Kiwi Farms seriously, and to see its CEO say this isn’t a new normal for the company. But even if Prince doesn’t want or intend for this to set a precedent, it may not be something in his control.

Each time an Internet infrastructure company does this, the easier it is for that company and others like it to justify doing the same in the future. (Already, Internet Archive has disappeared Kiwi Farms from its records.) And the easier it is for people angry at the existence of a platform to demand that these companies do it.

Cloudflare and other private actors have every right to terminate the services of web platforms they find offensive. It’s not illegal “censorship,” a violation of the First Amendment, or a violation of antitrust laws (all allegations that tend to be made whenever a tech company kicks off a personality or a controversial entity). This is also not a situation in which Cloudflare violates Section 230.

When Cloudflare canceled 8chan’s services, my colleague Scott Shackford wrote that “refusing to associate with a site that hosts posts it finds offensive is not much different from a baker or a maker of t-shirts refusing customers who ask them to bake cakes or shirts that contain messages they don’t like.” Offending sites can find others to host and serve them, just like people can go elsewhere for cakes and T-shirts. But “the point here,” Shackford writes, “is that every business whose business model runs on messaging has the ability to decide what its limits are, if any.”

It’s not false. On one level, Cloudflare’s move is a sign that free markets and free association are thriving. But it also raises more fundamental questions about how a company like Cloudflare should operate.

Is it more of a pastry shop or more of a telephone company?

Forcing it to act like a telephone company would be deeply problematic. But an Internet in which infrastructure companies Choose operating more like the telephone company is certainly less risky for free speech and political organizing in general. Once we start holding companies like Cloudflare accountable for the content of every site it serves, it seems unlikely that that path will end on the worst sites on the internet.

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