Cloudflare CEO calls for a system to regulate hateful internet content

Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince has called for the implementation of a framework to govern how the internet’s gatekeepers deal with cases like The Daily Stormer. This comes after a number of tech companies have revoked support for the neo-Nazi website for its close association with the violent far-right demonstrations in Charlottesville.

Seven-year-old Cloudflare took the step of cutting support for The Daily Stormer website on Thursday, which is notable as it’s the first time it has ever removed a customer from its service.

Far from energized by the decision, which saw Cloudflare follow in the footsteps of Google, Facebook, Apple, PayPal, GoDaddy, Spotify and others that took action, Prince voiced concern with a lack of a system to manage censorship decisions with consistency and objectivity.

“What I find troubling is that I woke up this morning and said we’ll kick them off our service and that will effectively kick them off the internet,” he told TechCrunch in a phone interview. “[The day] sucked and I worry we made an arbitrary decision.”

“If I’m self-critical, it’s a decision we should have a framework around,” Prince added. “How can we do it in a more disciplined and thorough and predictable and transparent way?”

Cloudflare’s primary service is a content delivery network that helps websites load quickly, but it also protects them against rushes of traffic, including DDoS attacks designed to knock them offline. The site claims to handle around 10 percent of the internet’s total traffic, with over six million websites using its products, which include free and priced tiers.

In the past it protected noble causes like pro-democracy websites in Hong Kong that were under huge attacks thought to be from the Chinese government, but it has often come under fire for a no-censorship policy that has seen its tech used by terrorists, hackers, scammers, and other undesirable groups since its launch in 2010. Prince has consistently pointed out that allowing free speech does not equate to supporting a cause.

“I know that Nazis are bad, the content [on The Daily Stormer] was so incredibly repulsive, it’s stomach turning how bad it is,” Prince explained. “But I do believe that the best way to battle bad speech is with good speech, I’m skeptical that censorship is the right scheme.””

“I’m worried the decision we made with respect to this one particular site is not particularly principled but neither was the decision that most tech companies made with respect to this site or other sites. It’s important that we know there is convention about how we create principles and how contraptions are regulated in the internet tech stack,” Prince added.

The Cloudflare CEO said he is aware that there’s no right answer in this situation, and he’s hopeful that the reaction to his company’s move — and the moves of other key internet stakeholders — can kick-start a debate on how to manage cases of hate speech and other abhorrent content on the internet using a system rather than one-off decisions.

“We didn’t just wake up and make some capricious decision, but we could have and that’s terrifying. The internet is a really important resource for everyone, but there’s a very limited set of companies that control it and there’s such little accountability to us that it really is quite a dangerous thing,” Prince added.

Cloudflare has worked with industry stakeholders on controversial content before. Its Project Galileo initiative engages NGOs and civil liberty groups to help define and identify free-expression outlets that are deserving of its support for their cause. That’s how it began working with pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong. Any new initiative, however, would be the polar opposite of Project Galileo — targeted at outing sites that should not exist on the internet, rather than those in need of protection.

Prince said he plans to speak to other stakeholders in the internet content space, but he admitted that he doesn’t have a definitive plan on what steps should be taken next. He’s still adjusting to the move that Cloudflare made, which represented an about-turn on its policy 24 hours earlier, he said.

Prince didn’t rule out expanding the ban on The Daily Stormer to other far-right websites, but he said he’d prefer to have a conversation or implement more structured thinking before making such a move.

“This is a very special situation and an exception that demands we sift through what the rules are,” he explained.

Prince admitted that Cloudflare had considered removing services from The Daily Stormer earlier this year after the site came to his attention following a ProPublica report published in May. The article revealed how the neo-Nazi site was using Cloudflare’s customer feedback policy to harass people who lodged complaints against its content.

That story led to Cloudflare altering its abuse policy, but it continued to serve the site despite its “abhorrent behavior.”

Prince said it decided to take action when, in addition to increased public opinion, Cloudflare noticed that The Daily Stormer was claiming that his company was aligned with the website at an ideological level.

“That was arguably libelous,” he said. “I said ‘Listen, I’ve had enough of these guys and they are just jerks.'”

“It became a distraction internally,” Prince added, explaining that The Daily Stormer was not a customer of note revenue-wise. “So much noise for one of 6 million customers occupying 20 percent of your brain space is inefficient.”

Now, however, he is hoping that the example of these “assholes” — as he described The Daily Stormer in an email to staff — can help in a positive way by enabling his company, and others that keep the internet running, to shape a more detailed policy to ensure that it is ready for what seems sure to be more run-ins with undesirable opinions and views online.