Who Should Police the Internet? Neo-Nazi Ban Was ‘Really, Really Dangerous,’ Says Cloudflare CEO

internet police cloudflare censorship nazis
Cloudflare provoked a backlash from internet freedom advocates last year after it cut off services to the neo-Nazi news site Daily Stormer. Wikimedia Commons

A major cybersecurity firm at the center of a free speech debate involving Nazis, ISIS and, bizarrely, a cookery website, has criticized technology companies like Google for failing to engage in the conversation surrounding online censorship.

Cloudflare CEO and co-founder Matthew Prince provoked a backlash from internet freedom advocates last year after he decided to cut off his company’s services to neo-Nazi news site the Daily Stormer. This left the website vulnerable to cyberattacks from vigilante hackers, while also demonstrating the power a few technology companies have when it comes to regulating or restricting freedom of expression online.

Six months later, in an interview with Newsweek at Cloudflare’s London offices, Prince describes his decision to block the Daily Stormer as “really, really dangerous,” revealing that his company will be issuing a new policy before the summer.

The controversy put Cloudflare—a backend internet company that few outside of industry circles have heard of—in an unfamiliar position: front and center of the debate over whether tech firms should be content neutral. Despite being relatively unknown, Cloudflare handles around 10 percent of all internet traffic and sees 2.8 billion people using its network every month.

Until last August, Prince and Cloudflare had consistently championed free speech, even in the face of widespread calls in 2015 for the company to block the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) from its services. “We’re the plumbers of the internet,” Prince said at the time. “We make the pipes work but it’s not right for us to inspect what is or isn’t going through the pipes.”

Beyond the hate-filled fringes of the alt-right, condemnation for the Daily Stormer’s content is universal. Sections on the neo-Nazi site include “Jewish Problem” and “Race War,” but it was comments in the site’s forums that suggested Cloudflare’s leadership were secret Nazis that prompted Prince to make the company’s first—and to date only—decision to police the content that passes through its servers.

nazi daily stormer internet censorship A member of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) stands behind a Los Angeles police tape line during a rally near City Hall on April 17, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince was heralded as a Nazi by Daily Stormer readers before his company blocked the news site from using its services. David McNew/Getty Images

Reaction to the decision was immediate. One of the most succinct responses came from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit digital rights group based less than three miles from Cloudflare’s San Francisco headquarters.

“Because internet intermediaries, especially those with few competitors, control so much online speech, the consequences of their decisions have far-reaching impacts on speech around the world,” members of the EFF wrote in a blogpost last August. “Every time a company throws a vile neo-Nazi site off the net, thousands of less visible decisions are made by companies with little oversight or transparency.”

Since pulling its services from the Daily Stormer, Prince says Cloudflare has received over 7,000 requests to take down websites—all citing the Daily Stormer case.

“It spanned the political spectrum,” Prince says. “People wanted us to take down other neo-Nazi sites, as well as extreme left wing sites. There was even a cooking blog that somebody claimed was incredibly offensive. We looked at it and it’s just a cooking blog, To this idea we have no idea why—our internal theory is that the recipes are just so terrible.

“I’m skeptical of slippery slope arguments but every once in a while they’re really true. And once you start to say ‘we are the content police,’ then it’s hard to stop.”

cloudflare internet police matthew prince Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt on September 22, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Cloudflare is not the only technology company to be criticized for content policing. Google and GoDaddy both blocked the Daily Stormer from their platforms, though they did not offer detailed reasons for the bans.

“These companies are just pointing at their terms of service and they’re not taking the time to engage in the conversation,” Prince says. “It’s hard to fathom the scale that we and other companies work at. It makes it very easy to make mistakes, but you should own those mistakes talk through it and not just hide behind the technology and say ‘the algorithm’s neutral.’ I don’t think that’s sustainable over the long term.”

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Prince was at Davos last month to discuss the issue of online censorship and he continues to meet with lawmakers, civil society organisations, customers, policy makers and think tanks about what the role of a deep technology company like Cloudflare should be. In addition to these discussions, Prince says he has been reading James Madison, father of the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.

“I now understand that freedom of expression is not a foundational right, it’s a right that’s derived from other rights,” Prince says. “What is much more foundational is that of due process. It require three things: Consistency, transparency and accountability.”

The sheer volume of internet traffic that passes through Cloudflare’s network each day means obeying these principles are beyond the reach of the company.

“It was an arbitrary decision [to block the Daily Stormer]. There are other horrible things that use our network and six months from now there’ll be other horrible things that come up,” Prince says. “Yesterday, 44,000 sites signed up for Cloudflare. That’s a football stadium. So patrolling that content is both impractical and it would actually be kind of creepy at some level.

“This is an issue that’s full of nuance in a conversation that doesn’t lend itself to nuance, because it’s Nazis or ISIS or god knows what else. We broke our policy before. Now we’re trying to figure out what our new policy should be.”