DigitalOcean and Cloudflare ditch neo-Nazi client, The Daily Stormer

Following the violent far right demonstrations in Charlottesville at the weekend, it has emerged that another two web services companies have terminated their business relationships with the Nazi propaganda website, The Daily Stormer.

The Daily Stormer, which spews racist, gender-based and homophobic hate speech on a daily basis, was used as a platform to help organize a violent white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville — and, afterwards, to celebrate the killing of anti-fascist protestor Heather Heyer, who died after a far right supporter drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors.

Earlier today cloud hosting platform DigitalOcean was publicly called out on Twitter for providing services to both The Daily Stormer and pro-hate speech crowdfunding platform Hatreon.

The latter has been embraced by the self-styled “alt-right” on account of its lack of hate speech guidelines. Other similar fundraising services, including Patreon and PayPal, do have terms of service prohibiting hate speech and have been known to terminate accounts deemed to be promoting hate speech — pushing neo-Nazis to alternative platforms such as Hatreon.

A few hours after entrepreneur Ryan Block tweeted the above, drawing attention to DigitalOcean’s apparent business relationship with The Daily Stormer, the company responded via Twitter to say its team had “investigated and determined this site violates our TOS by inciting violence or hate crimes”. “We’ve terminated their account,” it added.

In a further tweet-reply Digital Ocean confirmed it had also terminated Hatreon’s account.

We have questions in to DigitalOcean and expect an official response shortly — we’ll update this post when we have it.

Update: A DigitalOcean spokeswoman told us: “This is a terrible situation, but DigitalOcean believes that tech has a role in preventing hate crimes and violence from spreading, and takes that responsibility seriously.”

She also shared highlights from a note sent by CEO Ben Uretsky to DigitalOcean employees yesterday, in which he writes:

Our policy has always been to not host websites that incite violence or hate crimes. As soon as we become aware that they are violating our content policy we disable their Droplets. In the past we have shut down neo-Nazi and terrorist sites, as well as sites that contain child pornography or post private information for malicious intent. We will continue to do so in the future.

The spokeswoman said DigitalOcean’s Trust & Safety Team oversees its million+ users in coordination with Legal and Executive Leadership Teams, but further noted: “We are also reliant on other users and the public to report misuse of our ToS.”

She also noted DigitalOcean was “recently” alerted that it was hosting Hatreon. “Our Trust & Safety team investigated this site, confirmed they were a user, and determined they were violating our content policy by inciting violence or hate crimes. As a result we have disabled the Droplets that host this site, thereby cutting off content to the site.”

She added: “We investigated Daily Stormer in December 2016 and determined they purchased hosting through a reseller of ours. As soon as we realized they were being hosted through a reseller, we disabled the Droplets.”

It’s unclear why it took DigitalOcean more than six months to realize it was hosting Daily Stormer through a reseller. Update: DigitalOcean is now saying it cannot in fact confirm it knew Daily Stormer was a customer in December 2016 — and needs to spend more time investigating the timeframe. We will further update this post when the company is able to confirm when it identified Daily Stormer was a customer. We have also asked for confirmation of when it identified Hatreon was a customer. 

Update: DigitalOcean’s spokeswoman has now confirmed the following timeline regarding the two companies: 

Daily Stormer became a customer on 12/22/2016. On 12/22/2016 and 12/23/2016 we received abuse complaints about them. Following our abuse complaint procedure, we took action on 12/23/2016 and their Droplet was disabled.
We were notified on 08/15/2017 that Hatreon was a customer and we took action the same day.
Assuming this timeline is accurate, DigitalOcean had already ended its business relationship with The Daily Stormer prior to the events in Charlottesville.

A former DigitalOcean employee, who wished to remain anonymous, told TechCrunch: “DO is filled with lots of different people but most seemed care about equality, and were strongly opposed to hate. Further, as a corporation concerned with profit, I’m sure if hate sites are hosted there, they won’t be for long, as it’d affect the bottom line.”

Reached for comment on DigitalOcean’s decision, a Hatreon spokesman described it as “summary and regrettable”. “Meant for appeasement and likely in bad faith. We’ve respectfully asked to appeal but don’t believe they will provide a process,” he added.

At the time of writing The Daily Stormer appears to be offline again — and there’s a good reason for that: Cloudflare, which had been providing denial of service protection to the website, has apparently also bowed to public pressure and terminated the site’s subscription.

Journalist Matthew Sheffield tweeted the news earlier, pointing to a post by The Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin on social media site Gab apparently showing a screengrab of an email from Cloudflare informing him that his Cloudflare Pro subscription is ending “now”.

We’ve reached out to Cloudflare for confirmation and comment, and will update this post when we hear back.

Update: Company founder Matthew Prince has now blogged at length about his decision to terminate The Daily Stormer’s account, saying: “The tipping point for us making this decision was that the team behind Daily Stormer made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology.”

“Our team has been thorough and have had thoughtful discussions for years about what the right policy was on censoring. Like a lot of people, we’ve felt angry at these hateful people for a long time but we have followed the law and remained content neutral as a network. We could not remain neutral after these claims of secret support by Cloudflare,” he added.

Yesterday a spokeswoman for the company avoided answering direct questions put to it about its ongoing business relationship with The Daily Stormer in light of events in Charlottesville, saying only that: “Cloudflare is aware of the concerns that have been raised over some sites that have used our network. We find the content on some of these sites repugnant. While our policy is to not comment on any user specifically, we are cooperating with law enforcement in any investigation.”

After confirming his decision to terminate The Daily Stormer’s subscription, Prince goes on to detail his wider concerns around regulating content online, arguing that if powerful web infrastructure service providers generally step away from a neutral position over content they risk opening up the web to a de facto system of vigilante justice by hackers launching DDoS attacks.

“You, like me, may believe that the Daily Stormer’s site is vile. You may believe it should be restricted. You may think the authors of the site should be prosecuted. Reasonable people can and do believe all those things. But having the mechanism of content control be vigilante hackers launching DDoS attacks subverts any rational concept of justice,” he writes.

“Without a clear framework as a guide for content regulation, a small number of companies will largely determine what can and cannot be online,” he argues, noting that Cloudflare currently handles around 10 per cent of Internet requests.

He also suggests that Cloudflare’s decision to terminate The Daily Stormer will make it harder for the company to push back against governments applying political pressure against a site “they don’t like” in future.

He ends by suggesting there should be discussions between major tech platforms and services companies, such as Cloudflare, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon, to try to find a common framework for content restrictions. “I don’t know the right answer, but I do know that as we work it out it’s critical we be clear, transparent, consistent and respectful of Due Process,” he adds.

Several other tech firms had already responded to public outcry over fascist violence following Charlottesville by pulling the plug on The Daily Stormer — including GoDaddy, Google, SendGrid and Zoho. Despite that, the neo-Nazi propaganda site came briefly back online — after apparently being able to find a new domain host — before going down again, lacking the support of Cloudflare’s CDN.

News is continuing to drop about other tech firms taking action against hate speech — including Spotify removing music associated with white supremacists from its streaming service, and Squarespace terminating multiple “alt right” websites.

Social media giants have also been stepping up anti-hate speech action, including banning white supremacist accounts (Twitter), and removing links to The Daily Stormer article that celebrated the death of Heyer (Facebook).

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also posted a public comment relating to this action, in which he writes: “There is no place for hate in our community. That’s why we’ve always taken down any post that promotes or celebrates hate crimes or acts of terrorism — including what happened in Charlottesville. With the potential for more rallies, we’re watching the situation closely and will take down threats of physical harm. We won’t always be perfect, but you have my commitment that we’ll keep working to make Facebook a place where everyone can feel safe.”

This post was updated with additional comment