Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince said the company, which provides distributed-denial of service (DDoS) attack mitigation services to many popular websites, has terminated service to a neo-Nazi site called The Daily Stormer. Prince also said the company took "measures to ensure that [The Daily Stormer] cannot sign up for Cloudflare's services ever again" and explained why he believes this was a "dangerous" decision to make.
That decision followed numerous attempts to bring down The Daily Stormer. Earlier this week, host GoDaddy gave it 24 hours to find a new service provider. Shortly after, an article supposedly written by Anonymous hackers who "took over" the site claimed The Daily Stormer would be shut down within 24 hours. From there, the site moved to a Russian host, and it was then taken down following Cloudflare's decision to stop defending The Daily Stormer from the barrage of DDoS attacks.
As we've said before, DDoS attacks seem destined to remain in the headlines. They've been used to wreak havoc on popular services and games over the last year, and thanks to the continued rise of DDoS-as-a-service platforms and new attack methods, they're likely to continue to do so. That in turn means defensive services like Cloudflare's will become increasingly necessary for anyone who wants to remain online.
Prince recognized this reality in the blog post he published about his decision to stop providing services to The Daily Stormer:
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. In fact, in the case of the Daily Stormer, the initial requests we received to terminate their service came from hackers who literally said: 'Get out of the way so we can DDoS this site off the Internet.'
It's not hard to see why Cloudflare made this decision with The Daily Stormer, which Prince described as "vile," but that doesn't mean the choice won't have consequences. Allowing hackers to decide what content is or isn't allowed on the internet, he said, "subverts any rational concept of justice." Cloudflare allowing that to happen because of Prince's beliefs could set a worrisome precedent for how it approaches content policing.
Yet it's also easy to see that defending The Daily Stormer's website could have led to other problems for Cloudflare. Allowing the site to be taken down by DDoS attacks could make people worry about its de facto ability to be the arbiter of whose services remain online and whose don't. Continuing to defend the site could anger many people and would allow a site dedicated to hate speech to continue operating. Both options have their downsides.
Prince isn't the only person at Cloudflare concerned about the decision to terminate service to The Daily Stormer:
Someone on our team asked after I announced we were going to terminate the Daily Stormer: 'Is this the day the Internet dies?' He was half joking, but only half. He's no fan of the Daily Stormer or sites like it. But he does realize the risks of a company like Cloudflare getting into content policing.
For now, it's clear that Cloudflare doesn't plan to make a habit of dropping controversial sites. The question is how the company, which Prince said handles "around 10%" of internet requests, will balance the sometimes opposing values of free speech and anti-Nazism. Contrary to popular belief, there's no exception for hate speech in the First Amendment; neo-Nazis are given the same protections as everyone else.
But that doesn't mean Cloudflare has to provide its services to sites like The Daily Stormer. First Amendment protections start and end with the U.S. government; private companies are allowed to suspend service for pretty much any reason they want. Prince said in his blog post that Cloudflare's terms of service allow it to "terminate users of our network at our sole discretion." The company has avoided using that power, but Prince said The Daily Stormer forced Cloudflare to respond when it "made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology." He said:
Our team has been thorough and have had thoughtful discussions for years about what the right policy was on censoring. 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.
With the rising number and effectiveness of DDoS attacks, questions like this will have more and more impact on who is allowed to express their views on the internet. Services like Cloudflare will effectively control what speech remains online and what doesn't. That's a lot of responsibility, and it's not always clear how it should be wielded.