In the wake of Charlottesville and the bitter debate over the removal of Confederate statues, formerly obscure extremist websites—and their esoteric tech providers—are becoming mainstream names. Many online companies are being pressured to shut down such sites, reigniting debates over free speech, responsibility, and the power of tech platforms.
When the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi site, published a post that mocked Heather Heyer, the counter-protester murdered at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, it prompted an outcry to take the site down. The outrage was so intense that the site’s longtime domain registrar GoDaddy, which had long defended its role by claiming it as a free speech issue, very quickly dropped The Daily Stormer. But no one could pressure the site’s actual host because it was shielded from view—and from vigilante hacking attacks—by Cloudflare, whose servers sit as an intermediary between a website and the internet. The company, headed by CEO and cofounder Matthew Prince, has resisted demands to drop any of its 6 million websites, ranging from mainstream NASDAQ and OKCupid to tiny blogs—based on the content they host (provided it’s legal). That changed this week when Cloudflare dropped The Daily Stormer.
That does not necessarily mean Cloudflare is taking a more activist stand—even as companies such as PayPal and Squarespace are taking on such a role by dropping dozens of extremist sites. Cloudflare dumped The Daily Stormer, Prince tells me, because it was an infuriating customer and consumed an outsize amount of staff time at a company responsible for one-tenth of online page requests on Earth. However, Prince also says that he considers The Daily Stormer to be “a vile, repugnant, disgusting organization.”
He’s calling from the basement of Cloudflare’s headquarters in San Francisco, shortly after publishing a blog post on Thursday announcing his decision. I ask if he’s hiding down there to avoid the media firestorm and Prince gives me a sobering response. “We had a security consultant come through and say, ‘You have to move your desk,'” Prince recalls. “I said why, and he said, “People can see the back of your head from the street outside…and you could get shot.'”
Prince and other Cloudflare employees receive constant death threats due to the variety of views, sometimes extremely controversial, served up by its customers. Its unflinching tolerance helps insulate Cloudflare from the charge that it supports any particular view. In breaking with that policy for the first time ever, Prince anguished about the precedent it sets for the future of free speech on the internet, he tells me in a chat about the week’s events.
Fast Company: When did The Daily Stormer first hit your radar?
Matthew Prince: I think we first became aware of these guys when ProPublica did a piece [in May] about how they were taking abuse complaints that were submitted through our process, and harassing the people who had submitted them.
It was pretty vile at the time, the sort of behavior that they engaged in. That caused a time to both review them and the site but also to revamp our abuse process to make sure that it couldn’t be abused in that way.
FC: Fast forward to this week, what happened?
MP: It started out with a hacker that goes by the name The Jester reaching out to us to basically say, “Hey would you turn off Cloudflare protection so I can DDoS this site?” Which is obviously something we would not do.
I think it did definitely cause us to review both some of the support interactions that we had with this particular site and also what was going on across the rest of the internet, as you had Godaddy and Google and others chose not to renew the domain. We received complaints on Sunday and Monday from people that were concerned about the site…We passed the abuse complaints to the hosting provider, and the hosting provider actually chose to take the site down, so there’s a time on Monday when the site went offline for a period of time. [The Daily Stormer moved to a Russian hosting provider, and was subsequently blocked in that country, too.]
It the last 24 hours it became clear that the organizers of the site were going to just keep turning out new variants of it forever. And then they started claiming that senior Cloudflare leadership were fascists and supportive of their cause, and that was the final straw for me…
FC: What’s it been like for you all psychologically in the past few days?
MP: Some people have rightly said, “It feels like you made an arbitrary decision.” To which I say, “Yeah, exactly.” And I find that deeply unsettling. The blog post ends with an employee that said, “Hey is this the day the internet dies?” That sounds hyperbolic, but I’m not sure it is.
Our policy remains that we will endeavor to be content-neutral and will follow the law in the jurisdictions in which we operate, but now there’s an asterisk.
FC: Has the word “endeavor” always been part of the policy?
MP: Well I guess that’s the asterisk after today, and that’s what worries me…We protect LGBT groups in the Middle East. We protect journalists in Africa who are covering government corruption. We protect sites in Chechnya reporting on government oppression. We protect human rights workers in China. And there’s a lot of times we’ve gotten pressure [to drop the customers]. And you just heard me say we will “endeavor” [not to].
Somebody said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. I will say that when you’re trying to deal with sometimes little-minded government actors around the world, a very deliberate consistency can be extremely helpful.
FC: Is the fact that you were associated with being Daily Stormer sympathizers what pushed you to take a decision?
MP: Yeah, it was really my waking up and looking on Twitter, and seeing the moderators of the site saying, “We’ll be fine because Cloudflare’s one of us, they’re white nationalists.” And I was like, ‘OK that’s enough.’ It was enough of a distraction that we made the determination that we did. I made the determination. This was my call.
FC: If I were to write on my blog, ‘I think Cloudflare is homophobic, and that’s good because I hate gays,’ that puts you in the same position that you were with The Daily Stormer, right?
MP: I guess, but that massively trivializes the totality…When you have a customer that is a massive distraction, and they are, you think, just vile, and they are slandering what it is that you are doing, and when they interact with your team are rude, at some point you fire the customer.
FC: Other sites have similar views. Do you feel that you are going to get pulled into making decisions on other sites?
MP: We endeavor to be content-neutral, and so I worry about that. But hopefully now we can have a conversation without name-calling and think through what the right policy is. And I think we should be working with the entire tech industry, with policymakers, with legislators, with content creators with content consumers, to think about, OK where do we want to put controls in place…I think it is the responsible thing for us to ask ourselves, does that mean that we change our policies?
And it could be…the right policy is for an organization like Cloudflare to be content-neutral. That might be a different answer if you’re an ISP. That might be a different answer if you’re a registrar. That might be a different answer if you’re a browser maker.
FC: It must be frustrating that, while you’re trying to run a massive operation, this one site is taking up so much of your time.
MP: Who paid us, if anything, like $20 month. And I think most of these sites are on a free version of our service.
We’ve said the right thing to do is to be content-neutral, but you have to think through, at what point is the cost of supporting what are intentionally provocative organizations, at what point does that outweigh? We’re a private corporation. We exist in part to generate returns for our shareholders.
FC: What brought you to bring in a security consultant, and are threats something that you’ve had to think about?
MP: Oh yeah, I get death threats all the time, and other people on our team have as well. I remember the very first question that we had with our very first investor…was, “What are you going to do about the death threats?” There’s always someone who is being blocked by our network if they’re a criminal organization, or there’s something on our network that [people] just find politically or philosophically revolting….
Like abortion. There are people who literally believe that abortion is murder, and there are abortion clinics that use Cloudflare…We have anti-abortion activists, militant activists, who use us as well. There’s literally no one that, if you looked at the totality of Cloudflare, would be happy. It definitely provides a lot of strong feelings of people saying you should be doing X or Y…That’s exactly why the long term position of staying neutral feels like the only true and sustainable position that will work. But today we had to put an asterisk on it.