Yesterday, Cloudflare, which provides internet security services like DDoS protection and domain name server services, announced that it was terminating services for the website 8chan, where the El Paso shooter and several other mass shooters had posted their manifestos before committing their murders.
8chan (not officially associated with the similarly-named and also controversial 4chan) has long been a breeding ground for some of the most offensive content on the internet, including promoting child pornography and child rape, virulent racism and bigotry, and encouragement for acts of violence against others, including SWATting — calling in a false police report that there has been a shooting or someone is making threats, with the goal of an armed law enforcement response causing stress and chaos, and possibly even injury or death, to the intended victim.
The El Paso shooter (I am deliberately not using his name) posted his manifesto less than an hour before he began murdering innocent shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The several pages he posted expressed support for white nationalism and previous mass shooters at the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand and a Poway, California synagogue — both of whom also used 8chan to share their hate-filled screeds with the world beforehand.
Beyond the manifestos directly posted by these mass shooters, encouragement for these killings came from other users on the site. Scores of news reports over the past few months have noted posts supporting the idea of taking violent action to eliminate people of a specific race or religion — the El Paso shooter targeted Mexican-Americans; previous shooters targeted Muslims and Jews — and those who commit such evil acts are cheered as heroes.
If the 8chan document is confirmed, El Paso will be the third mass shooting announced on 8chan in advance in less than six months, targeting Muslims, Jews, and Latinos respectively.
On 8chan right now, the suspect is being cheered as “our guy”
— Julia Carrie Wong (@juliacarriew) August 4, 2019
In 2017, Cloudflare was in the center of a similar controversy when they decided to terminate services with The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that soon found another service provider. Cloudflare has long maintained that they do not monitor or publish content, unlike services like Facebook, but merely provide the technological infrastructure that allows websites to remain online and to be found by search engines.
The company had expressed its discomfort with the role of internet censor after kicking out The Daily Stormer, and originally maintained that they would continue to allow 8chan to use their services, telling reporters that their technological infrastructure made it easier for sites like 8chan to be monitored and they were committed to cooperating with law enforcement.
Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince says that his decision is not about free speech or making money. Instead, he says keeping 8chan within Cloudflare's network facilitates monitoring of the site and cooperation with law enforcement. https://t.co/PVnnu6LFxM pic.twitter.com/4ffQ8AWLfC
— Julia Carrie Wong (@juliacarriew) August 4, 2019
“If we kicked 8chan off our network, the crowds would cheer, and we’d suddenly not be in the middle of this horrible tragedy,” said Cloudflare’s CEO Matthew Prince. “But law enforcement would have less visibility into what’s going on.”
Within hours of giving these interviews, Prince reversed his decision and the company posted a notice on their blog, noting that they would in fact terminate 8chan’s service, citing 8chan’s refusal to moderate their users’ conduct and how postings on that site had “directly inspire[d]” violence:
8chan is among the more than 19 million Internet properties that use Cloudflare’s service. We just sent notice that we are terminating 8chan as a customer effective at midnight tonight Pacific Time. The rationale is simple: they have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths. Even if 8chan may not have violated the letter of the law in refusing to moderate their hate-filled community, they have created an environment that revels in violating its spirit.
…We reluctantly tolerate content that we find reprehensible, but we draw the line at platforms that have demonstrated they directly inspire tragic events and are lawless by design. 8chan has crossed that line. It will therefore no longer be allowed to use our services.
8chan’s founder, Fredrick Brennan, spent Sunday calling for 8chan to be shut down, and told CNN that the site was being run in a way that was “indefensible,” and “letting their users incite violence.” He posted a tweet praising Cloudflare’s decision.
Thank you so much @CloudFlare. Finally this nightmare might have an end. I just want to go back to making my fonts in peace and not have to worry about getting phone calls from CNN/New York Times every time a mass shooting happens. They could have prevented this and chose not to.
— Fredrick Brennan (@HW_BEAT_THAT) August 5, 2019
One potential motivation for Cloudflare’s willingness to drop the hammer on 8chan, despite their previous reluctance: they have an upcoming IPO.
Multiple news reports noted that Cloudflare is reportedly planning to go public, with an IPO scheduled for this September. Tech blogs were giddy over the news as recently as five days ago. As BuzzFeed tech reporter Ryan Mac tweeted, “Not a great look to public investors if you’re defending the go-to site for extremist shooter manifestos.”
So what’s the solution here? PJ Media’s Paula Bolyard was one of many asking if Cloudflare’s move was a “slippery slope or necessary evil,” and conservatives have good reason to be concerned about overly zealous internet censorship. Look no further than Snopes’ aggressive efforts to “fact-check” The Babylon Bee — a satire site that found its Facebook monetization at risk after Snopes labeled them “fake news.”
The ability to communicate online, to share thoughts and ideas, to raise money and build networks of subscribers and supporters, is absolutely critical in these modern times, and the companies that provide the infrastructure, content platforms, and other technology that connect us to each other online are often dominated by leadership who lean more liberal than the RedState audience.
As Americans, we have a First Amendment right to free speech, but that does not require any of us to publish or promote the speech of others, as Cloudflare rightfully noted in their announcement last night. Demanding that the government step in to either force companies like Cloudflare kick out sites like 8chan or to protect them and require Cloudflare to do business with a site they find to be repugnant would be unconstitutional.
Where Cloudflare deserves express praise, however, is how they note the importance of the Rule of Law, and the benefits of declaring their own managing rules in a way that is transparent and consistent (see the section of their announcement titled “Rule of Law”). This principle also serves as the guide for which sites have crossed the line and they believe deserve termination, because they were “designed to be lawless and unmoderated,” and “have demonstrated their ability to cause real harm”:
The unresolved question is how should the law deal with platforms that ignore or actively thwart the Rule of Law? That’s closer to the situation we have seen with the Daily Stormer and 8chan. They are lawless platforms. In cases like these, where platforms have been designed to be lawless and unmoderated, and where the platforms have demonstrated their ability to cause real harm, the law may need additional remedies. We and other technology companies need to work with policy makers in order to help them understand the problem and define these remedies. And, in some cases, it may mean moving enforcement mechanisms further down the technical stack.
Right-leaning sites do not need to defend the likes of 8chan to protect their right to exist online. I don’t care what your politics are; murdering people who are shopping at a Walmart merely because of their race is an absolutely evil and indefensible act, and encouraging anyone who considers such acts is likewise indefensible.
However, the sloppy way some in the media and on the left have characterized sites like The Daily Stormer and 8chan as “right wing,” or attempted to conflate support for enforcement of immigration laws with support for white nationalist mass shooters must be called out and criticized, while we continue to demand that services like Cloudflare and social media companies like Facebook and Twitter increase their transparency about their rules and how they are enforced.
It should not be too much of a challenge to articulate how espousing conservative principles is distinguished from calling for the murder of innocent people. We can do that, and we can demand that internet companies make the same distinctions as well.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.