Censorship

Cloudflare, Not the Government, Should Decide Whether It Wants to Do Business with 8chan

Companies should forced neither to help spread offensive speech nor to suppress it.

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Over the weekend, in response to the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Cloudflare announced it was exercising its right to refuse to provide services to 8chan, an online forum that over the past few years has become a cesspool of racism.

8chan has gotten so thick with bigotry and calls for violence that Fredrick Brennan, the man who founded the site in 2013, wants it shut down. Multiple mass shooters have been participants on its forums, and the El Paso shooter appears to have posted a manifesto on the site before he started his rampage.

Cloudflare is a web security company that helps protect sites and online platforms from mass hacking attacks. It's a major online service with millions of customers. It had previously decided in 2017 to terminate its services with neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer. In this morning's Reason Roundup, Elizabeth Nolan Brown criticized Cloudfare's decision as an act of futility; she's also tweeted that she thinks the company made a bad decision (while, of course, acknowledging Cloudflare's right to make that decision).

I disagree with my colleague here, though the gap between us isn't all that huge. This may be futile on Cloudflare's end, and it probably won't kill off 8chan, which has already relocated to a new domain host. Cloudflare is not a monopoly. It's a dominant force in online security, but it does have a number of competitors (Reason.com, for example, uses a different service). When Cloudflare terminated its relationship with The Daily Stormer a couple of years ago, it knocked the site offline briefly, but it found a new security service and was eventually restored.

But futile or not, refusing to associate itself with a site that hosts messages it finds offensive isn't much different from a baker or T-shirt maker refusing customers that ask them to make cakes or shirts that contain messages that they dislike. Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince notes as much in his blog post explaining his decision to cut off 8chan:

We continue to feel incredibly uncomfortable about playing the role of content arbiter and do not plan to exercise it often. Some have wrongly speculated this is due to some conception of the United States' First Amendment. That is incorrect. First, we are a private company and not bound by the First Amendment. Second, the vast majority of our customers, and more than 50% of our revenue, comes from outside the United States where the First Amendment and similarly libertarian freedom of speech protections do not apply. The only relevance of the First Amendment in this case and others is that it allows us to choose who we do and do not do business with; it does not obligate us to do business with everyone.

When Cloudflare cut off The Daily Stormer, I defended its right to make that choice. I do so again here, for the exact same reason I defend the bakers and printers. No business has any moral or ethical obligation to continue providing goods or services that helps perpetuate speech they find offensive. It may or may not be the best business choice, but freedom means people are allowed to make less than optimal choices when their personal ethos demands it.

More importantly: As we watch the political fights play out over online censorship (real or imagined), and over elected officials' desire to control what online companies do or don't allow, every alternative to letting Cloudflare make its own decisions is worse for our freedoms.

That's because any other alternative involves the use of government regulation—and, ultimately, the threat of government force—to decide both who tech companies must serve and who they must censor. And when politicians get involved in such actions, they almost invariably want to compel companies to serve as platforms for speech that matches what they believe and to censor speech that has the potential to jeopardize their power or influence.

It's true that Cloudflare isn't killing off 8chan, meaning that there is a certain "futility" in their efforts to kill off racist and violent speech online. It's also true that gay couples in Colorado can buy their wedding cakes from somebody other than Masterpiece Cakeshop, meaning that there is also a certain "futility" in owner Jack Phillips refusing to serve them.

But that's not the point. The point here is that every company whose business model operates on the transmission of messages has the ability to decide what its limits are—if any. A restaurant doesn't have to put up with a person wandering in and screaming at its customers. Neither should an online platform, if it doesn't want to.

Disappointingly, Prince is maintaining his previous position that he'd really prefer for the government to make the decisions for him so that he doesn't have to take responsibility and face criticism for his business choices:

Cloudflare is not a government. While we've been successful as a company, that does not give us the political legitimacy to make determinations on what content is good and bad. Nor should it. Questions around content are real societal issues that need politically legitimate solutions. We will continue to engage with lawmakers around the world as they set the boundaries of what is acceptable in their countries through due process of law. And we will comply with those boundaries when and where they are set.

Governments and politicians don't decide "what content is good and bad." It decides what content is permitted and what is censored. That's definitely not the same thing—just ask dissidents in China, Russia, or Egypt.

Prince also praises Europe for taking "a lead" in the arena of defining and banning hate speech. This is a myopic. Prince sees only that Europe is ordering platforms to censor content because that's the extent that it will affect Cloudflare. But Europe's enforcement of hate speech laws involves fining and potentially arresting and imprisoning people for the things that they say, an approach it has taken to utterly absurd lengths. And the crackdown has not stopped racist nationalism and anti-immigrant attitudes from spreading in Europe.

These regulations help give big companies cover from public complaints of "censorship" when they're forced to comply with the rules, and they often come with expensive compliance costs that big companies can deal with more easily than smaller competitors or start-ups. It's notable that Prince's post also has a healthy dose of bragging about Cloudflare's share of the market.

Essentially, Prince wants to have it both ways: He wants Cloudflare to be able to cut ties with offensive sites, but he also doesn't want to have to take responsibility for business decisions that could result in public criticism—or that competitors might be able to take advantage of.

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  1. But you must bake the cake.

    1. I assumed that Cloudflare is not located in Colorado.

      1. In fact, certain forms of “speech” should be illegal in Colorado, California, and everywhere else in this great country, just the way they are in Russia and China, and the best way of accomplishing that goal is to build on the important advances in criminalizing inappropriate “parody” that we’ve made here in New York, with the assistance of several distinguished faculty members at NYU. See the documentation of our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case at:

        https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  2. But futile or not, refusing to associate itself with a site that hosts messages it finds offensive isn’t much different from a baker or T-shirt maker refusing customers that ask them to make cakes or shirts that contain messages that they dislike.

    It is exactly the same. Unless they have some kind of monopoly or are acting in concert with other companies as an illegal cartel, they have no obligation to serve 8 Chan. Since 8 Chan found another host, they are clearly not a monopoly or involved in a cartel. I have no idea whether doing this is a good thing for their business and would not pretend to tell them. They think it is and since it is their money, that is good enough.

    1. “or are acting in concert with other companies as an illegal cartel,”

      Bingo! If you look at what Gab went through, this is likely the case, it just takes a little while to get everybody on the same page. Watch what happens to 8chan over the next few weeks.

      Now, setting aside the speculative existence of a cartel, what of breach of contract? I’ve just taken a quick look at Cloudflare’s TOS, and it looks to me like they violated them.

      “11.2. Termination. Either Party may at any time terminate the Agreement, upon written notice to the other Party, if: (a) the other Party has materially breached any provision of the Agreement, and such breach remains uncured one (1) month after receipt of notice from the non-breaching Party specifying such breach in reasonable detail; or (b) the other Party becomes the subject of a petition in bankruptcy or any other proceeding relating to insolvency, receivership, liquidation or assignment for the benefit of creditors. Notwithstanding the foregoing, Cloudflare may temporarily suspend or terminate delivery of the Service to Customer upon notice, if Customer breaches Section 2.3(c) above and fails to cure such breach within 24 hours of receiving such notice or such other timeframe as Cloudflare may reasonably request.”

      2.3(c) does not appear applicable, (You could maybe make a case for 2.3(e).) and they weren’t given a month to resolve the issue. They were just instantly cut off at the knees.

      1. I think 2.3(e) is more likely to apply than you do, but in any event, only 2.3(c) allows for almost-immediate cancellation.

        Still, though, what are 8chan’s damages? I can’t imagine a court ordering specific performance when other providers offer the same services as Cloudflare. And would 8chan (and presumably its owners) willingly submit to the jurisdiction of San Francisco Superior Court (or the Northern District, I suppose) in the first place?

        Yes, Cloudfare seems to have breached its TOS, but I seriously doubt 8chan would ever show up in court here to complain about it, and even if it did, I’m not sure what they’d get for their trouble.

        1. The point is that, the extent of the damages, and likelihood of prevailing in a hostile court aside, contrary to what John suggests, they actually DID have an obligation to serve 8chan.

          One they’d voluntarily entered into, and have now casually violated.

        2. The contract, presumably, identifies penalties for breaking contract on both sides.

          That said, a possible penalty for breaking contract probably did enter into Cloudflare’s decision process. They just decided it was worth it.

    2. They have no obligation, but there is value of sorts in having unrestricted fora just to fully exercise free speech, as proof of denial of government control (even nudge nudge, wink wink threats, like threats to classify as common carriers because government dislikes certain speech.)

  3. “But futile or not, refusing to associate itself with a site that hosts messages it finds offensive isn’t much different from a baker or T-shirt maker refusing customers that ask them to make cakes or shirts that contain messages that they dislike”

    Except, they’re getting kicked because of the violence, not their political opinions.

  4. When Cloudflare cut off The Daily Stormer, I defended its right to make that choice. I do so again here, for the exact same reason I defend the bakers and printers.

    Do you write for some other publication where that happened?

    1. Shacklefrod has been fairly consistent on this.

      1. Yeah, I don’t get where this idea comes from that Reason is in favor of forcing people to bake cakes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any Reason writer express that opinion, and many have explicitly said that bakers have every right to refuse to bake cakes against their wishes.

        Does anyone have a link to a post where a Reason writer said “bake the cake?”

        1. I don’t think anyone is going to do your research for you. If it’s that interesting, use Reason’s extremely shitty search function and frustrate yourself to your heart’s content.

          As an aside, I don’t think anyone actually expressly stated, verbatim, “bake the god damned cake and shut up” but I also understand hyperbole, and that what is being hyperbolozed is the idea that baking the cake is not a hardship on the objectors. I know THAT sentiment has been expressed by Reason’s writers in the past.

        2. Shackford punts literally every time he discusses the issue. He sticks to a newsreader format summarizing the arguments taking no position himself. On the other hand you’ve got this.

            1. And this

              And about a thousand others that I’m not going to sift through the other 50 pages of Google results to pull for you.

          1. Shackford punts literally every time he discusses the issue.

            If by “punting” you mean always explicitly coming down on the side of the bakers.

            On the other hand you’ve got this.

            I don’t generally pay attention to Volokh, so I freely admit I was unaware of his position on this. You’ve also got examples from . . . Volokh. And then . . . Volokh, again.

            And Volokh is arguing that baking a cake is not speech, which I don’t think is an unfair point. I think it’s still a 1A issue, but saying “it’s debatable whether this is a 1A issue” =/= “Reason’s official position is ‘bake the cake.'”

            1. “Ryan Reynolds” here is one of the Tokyo Roses that comes here to spread shit and destroy the morale of the pro-liberty community. “It doesn’t have to be true – it just has to go viral” is his motto.

          2. Hasn’t Volokh explicitly said he’s not a libertarian?

            And no, Shackford doesn’t punt. In fact, he often expresses naive optimism regarding the kindness and “live and let live” outlook of libertarians (he clearly doesn’t read his own comment sections).

    2. Just click his name up there and you’ll find them.

  5. Governments and politicians don’t decide “what content is good and bad.” It decides what content is permitted and what is censored.

    AMEN.
    Getting government involved in the speech regulation business is bad on every level.

    1. Fuck off Kuni.

      1. I’m not Kuni, and fuck off yourself.

        1. Fuck off Kuni.

    2. They are getting involved in liability and contracts. I see you still didn’t bother to read Hawleys bill.

  6. 8chan, which has already relocated to a new domain host.

    Obviously the solution is to ban domain hosting.

  7. A restaurant doesn’t have to put up with a person wandering in and screaming at its customers.

    Take that, Sarah Sanders!

    1. Ted Cruz wishes this were so.

  8. A restaurant doesn’t have to put up with a person wandering in and screaming at its customers.

    *** meekly raises hand ***

    What if that person is “on the spectrum”?

    1. Why should that matter?

      1. Fuck off Kuni.

      2. American Disability Act.

        I assume libertarians are against it.

    2. Autism spectrum:Tulpa::frequency spectrum:brown note

      1. It’s wierd how triggered you get by me, have some god damned self control.

        1. I gave you such an easy comeback, and you fucked it up again. Sad!

          1. How can you let me live in your head like this?

    3. A restaurant doesn’t have to put up with a person wandering in and screaming at its customers.

      What a terrible analogy. Cloudflare’s business is nothing at all like operating a restaurant.
      It’s more like a home security and a leasehold management service.

  9. But…but…but if businesses decide for themselves what should be done on their website, then there would be no reason for government interference in businesses.
    Just think of all that evil corporations will do if there isn’t a bunch of nannies dictating policy for the greater good!

  10. Cloudflare announced it was exercising its right to refuse to provide services to 8chan, an online forum that over the past few years has become a cesspool of racism.

    I know absolutely nothing about 8chan. But given the unbridled awfulness that is the media, I’m inclined to not believe this until I see evidence.

    1. I’m sure some quick googling will find them and you can see for yourself. Personally, I don’t want to boost their Google search rank so I’m refraining and taking people’s word for it.

      1. I’m not saying it’s not true, it’s just I’ve seen a 4000% increase in stories in the media about this or that person, or this or that thing which is totes racist and problematic, only to find out that when you dig into it, it’s either not racist at all, or at minimum, not particularly racist in any unique way.

      2. Basically any forum that doesn’t relentlessly engage in censorship could be characterized as “a cesspool of racism”, given how easily people are accused of racism these days. Certainly Reason would be vulnerable on that front, given some of the comments here.

        1. Any forum that doesn’t relentlessly engage in censorship is a “a cesspool of racism” and should be moderated by the government.

          Any forum that does relentlessly engage in censorship is a “cesspool of partisan bias” and should be moderated by the government.

          Heads they win, tails we lose.

    2. So you know how 4Chan allows basically anything, and only has a few lines you shouldn’t cross?

      8Chan is made up of the folks that got kicked off 4Chan for crossing those lines too often.

      1. No.
        8chan, unlike 4chan, hosts independent forums that are not moderated by 8 chan but by their own moderators. When you’re referencing people who were kicked out of 4chan, you’re talking about the /pol/ board hosted on 8chan.
        8chan hosts many boards, some, like /leftypol/ were the biggest left-wing/progressive chans out there. Of course that baby went out with the bathwater.

  11. meaning that there is also a certain “futility” in owner Jack Phillips refusing to serve them.

    Well, ok, I guess if we presume that Jack Phillips is trying to shut down gay marriage by refusing to bake a cake. I suspect, however, that Mr. Phillips’ motivations had little or nothing to do with that.

  12. Cloudflare’s statement after shutting down the Daily Stormer in August of 2017:

    We’re going to have a long debate internally about whether we need to remove the bullet about not terminating a customer due to political pressure. It’s powerful to be able to say you’ve never done something. And, after today, make no mistake, it will be a little bit harder for us to argue against a government somewhere pressuring us into taking down a site they don’t like.

    1. In a not-so-distant future, if we’re not there already, it may be that if you’re going to put content on the Internet you’ll need to use a company with a giant network like Cloudflare, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, or Alibaba.

      For context, Cloudflare currently handles around 10% of Internet requests.

      Without a clear framework as a guide for content regulation, a small number of companies will largely determine what can and cannot be online.

      I always found Cloudflare’s statement on why they took down the Daily Stormer as a cautionary tale of why they shouldn’t have taken down the Daily Stormer.

    2. First, we are a private company and not bound by the First Amendment. Second, the vast majority of our customers, and more than 50% of our revenue, comes from outside the United States where the First Amendment and similarly libertarian freedom of speech protections do not apply. The only relevance of the First Amendment in this case and others is that it allows us to choose who we do and do not do business with; it does not obligate us to do business with everyone.

      Shorter Cloudflare: 50% of our revenue comes from a place that doesn’t give two shits about the 1st amendment or “freedom of speech”, and I’m not giving up my silk sheets and private jet on blind principle.

  13. >>>Fredrick Brennan, the man who founded the site in 2013, wants it shut down.

    then where would the monkeys go?

    1. They’d return to their typewriters and mock the editorial standards at Reason.

      1. Handing out leaflets… the bedrock of political agitation.

  14. Regardless whether it’s futile (it probably is), my hat is off to them. To misquote Edmund Burke, “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”

    Kinda like me voting for Gary Johnson. I knew it would accomplish nothing but I did it anyway.

    1. It did accomplish something – it made the major parties tremble with fear at the rising tide that is the libertarian movement.

      This moment of comedy brought to you by Unicorn Abattoir.

    2. To misquote Edmund Burke, “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”

      How does shutting down a discussion site amount to anything more than “doing nothing”?

  15. I think the lesson here is pretty clear: If you want freedom of speech on the internet, you’d better host your site yourself. And accept cash.

    Because otherwise, you’re going to learn some day that your hosting service doesn’t give a bucket of warm spit about your rights, and will fold at the first hint of trouble. And your bank probably won’t be far behind.

    1. I think the lesson here is pretty clear: If you want freedom of speech on the internet, you’d better host your site yourself. And accept cash.

      No, that’s no barrier to being shut down at all.

    2. Hosting service, ISP, colo, domain registrar, etc can all be used to shut down a site

    3. I think this is the big thing. I don’t care what Cloudflare does because anybody can start another Cloudflare. I strenuously object both to Operation Chokepoint and to Mastercard’s refusal to process transactions requested by their own customers because here you have regulators constraining the ability of new actors to get into the game.

  16. Don’t worry, Senator Hawley will be on the case soon enough!

    1. We don’t need Senator Hawley, we have Cloudflare, Jack Dorsey, Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg.

      1. Maybe they can have a censor competition.

        1. Good point. Cloudflare, Dorsey, Pichai and Zuckerberg are already way ahead. Hawley is playing triple A ball here.

    2. 11 pages Jeffrey. Still too long for you to read?

  17. 8chan has gotten so thick with bigotry and calls for violence that Fredrick Brennan, the man who founded the site in 2013, wants it shut down. Multiple mass shooters have been participants on its forums, and the El Paso shooter appears to have posted a manifesto on the site before he started his rampage.

    And how does that relate to shutting it down? What’s the rationale here? Are people suggesting that shutting down discussion forums somehow leads to less violence?

  18. Companies should forced neither to help spread offensive speech nor to suppress it.

    I assume you’re prepared to apply that to phone companies and mail carriers, too?

    1. Phone companies and mail carriers are utilities.

      Unless you’re willing to argue that Cloudflare should be a utility, there’s no reason to hold it to those standards.

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