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.