The mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio are horrific tragedies. In the case of the El Paso shooting, the suspected terrorist gunman appears to have been inspired by the forum website known as 8chan. Based on evidence we’ve seen, it appears that he posted a screed to the site immediately before beginning his terrifying attack on the El Paso Walmart killing 20 people.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Nearly the same thing happened on 8chan before the terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. The El Paso shooter specifically referenced the Christchurch incident and appears to have been inspired by the largely unmoderated discussions on 8chan which glorified the previous massacre. In a separate tragedy, the suspected killer in the Poway, California synagogue shooting also posted a hate-filled “open letter” on 8chan. 8chan has repeatedly proven itself to be a cesspool of hate.
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 do not take this decision lightly. Cloudflare is a network provider. In pursuit of our goal of helping build a better internet, we’ve considered it important to provide our security services broadly to make sure as many users as possible are secure, and thereby making cyberattacks less attractive — regardless of the content of those websites. Many of our customers run platforms of their own on top of our network. If our policies are more conservative than theirs it effectively undercuts their ability to run their services and set their own policies. 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.
What Will Happen Next
Unfortunately, we have seen this situation before and so we have a good sense of what will play out. Almost exactly two years ago we made the determination to kick another disgusting site off Cloudflare’s network: the Daily Stormer. That caused a brief interruption in the site’s operations but they quickly came back online using a Cloudflare competitor. That competitor at the time promoted as a feature the fact that they didn’t respond to legal process. Today, the Daily Stormer is still available and still disgusting. They have bragged that they have more readers than ever. They are no longer Cloudflare’s problem, but they remain the Internet’s problem.
I have little doubt we’ll see the same happen with 8chan. While removing 8chan from our network takes heat off of us, it does nothing to address why hateful sites fester online. It does nothing to address why mass shootings occur. It does nothing to address why portions of the population feel so disenchanted they turn to hate. In taking this action we’ve solved our own problem, but we haven’t solved the Internet’s.
In the two years since the Daily Stormer what we have done to try and solve the Internet’s deeper problem is engage with law enforcement and civil society organizations to try and find solutions. Among other things, that resulted in us cooperating around monitoring potential hate sites on our network and notifying law enforcement when there was content that contained an indication of potential violence. We will continue to work within the legal process to share information when we can to hopefully prevent horrific acts of violence. We believe this is our responsibility and, given Cloudflare’s scale and reach, we are hopeful we will continue to make progress toward solving the deeper problem.
Rule of Law
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.
Instead our concern has centered around another much more universal idea: the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law requires policies be transparent and consistent. While it has been articulated as a framework for how governments ensure their legitimacy, we have used it as a touchstone when we think about our own policies.
We have been successful because we have a very effective technological solution that provides security, performance, and reliability in an affordable and easy-to-use way. As a result of that, a huge portion of the Internet now sits behind our network. 10% of the top million, 17% of the top 100,000, and 19% of the top 10,000 Internet properties use us today. 10% of the Fortune 1,000 are paying Cloudflare customers.
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.
Europe, for example, has taken a lead in this area. As we’ve seen governments there attempt to address hate and terror content online, there is recognition that different obligations should be placed on companies that organize and promote content — like Facebook and YouTube — rather than those that are mere conduits for that content. Conduits, like Cloudflare, are not visible to users and therefore cannot be transparent and consistent about their policies.
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.
Cloudflare’s mission is to help build a better Internet. At some level firing 8chan as a customer is easy. They are uniquely lawless and that lawlessness has contributed to multiple horrific tragedies. Enough is enough.
What’s hard is defining the policy that we can enforce transparently and consistently going forward. We, and other technology companies like us that enable the great parts of the Internet, have an obligation to help propose solutions to deal with the parts we’re not proud of. That’s our obligation and we’re committed to it.
Unfortunately the action we take today won’t fix hate online. It will almost certainly not even remove 8chan from the Internet. But it is the right thing to do. Hate online is a real issue. Here are some organizations that have active work to help address it:
Our whole Cloudflare team’s thoughts are with the families grieving in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio this evening.