Lily Hay Newman
The internet infrastructure firm Cloudflare said it would cut service on Sunday evening to 8chan, the infamous online forum that has housed numerous posts and manifestos linked to horrific mass shootings in the United States and around the world. The move comes nearly two days after a mass shooting at an El Paso, Texas Walmart left 20 dead and dozens wounded. The alleged gunman appears to have posted his manifesto on 8chan 20 minutes before the shooting. Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince spoke with WIRED Sunday night about his decision.
Cloudflare provides infrastructural support, like content delivery services and DDoS protection, to 19 million online properties. Revoking that support can effectively shut a site down, at least until it finds a new provider. But the company has long maintained that it should not serve as an arbiter of speech online, with one notable exception: Cloudflare severed ties with the white supremacist site the Daily Stormer two years ago.
As pressure mounted in the wake of the El Paso shooting, Cloudflare at first maintained that it would not drop 8chan. But by Sunday evening, the company had reversed course.
“8chan has been on our radar for a long time as a problematic user,” says Prince. “But we have a responsibility, which is much beyond ‘we terminate sites we don’t like.’ I’m nervous about whether we’ve made the right decision, and I’m nervous about how this will set precedent in the future.”
Prince argues that rather than Cloudflare, platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter should decide what belongs on their own sites. Cloudflare shouldn’t make those calls any more than asphalt should set speed limits. The major platforms can, and do, moderate their own content and manage violent, destructive trends themselves—even if it’s been an imperfect system in practice. But Prince says that he didn’t account for platforms like 8chan that are intentionally created as a forum for unregulated expression.
“When you have platforms that are effectively lawless like this, then maybe that shifts the responsibility further down the stack,” Prince says. Looking at Daily Stormer and now 8chan, Prince says that Cloudflare is attempting to find the line where “a site has shown repeatedly that it is causing active, real harm.”
Cloudflare gets requests from individuals, institutions, and governments worldwide to take down sites every day, though, because of their alleged real-world harm. It doesn’t act on those requests precisely because that allegation is so subjective. As a result, the actual parameters for what merits a takedown remain extremely murky.
And even when Cloudflare takes the step to unilaterally cut service, nothing stops those shunned sites from buying the services they need elsewhere. The Daily Stormer, for example, was back online within a couple of days, albeit harder to find. And though Google stopped indexing 8chan back in 2015, taking some wind out of its sails, the site has still managed to become a go-to for hate speech of all sorts and, of late, mass shooters spreading their extremist propaganda.
“Some of you might’ve read the @Cloudflare news already,” a Twitter account associated with the site posted on Sunday evening. “There might be some downtime in the next 24-48 hours while we find a solution.”
“It solves the problem for us, but it doesn’t solve the problem for the internet.”
Matthew Prince, Cloudflare CEO
Even if 8chan itself somehow never reemerges, which seems unlikely, discussions like those hosted on the forum can easily move to another platform. 8chan itself grew out of the forum 4chan in 2013. Meanwhile, the anything-goes social network Gab went down temporarily last fall, because its providers—including the domain registrar GoDaddy and web host Joyent—dropped it after the alleged shooter in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting made threats on the social network. But Gab came back as soon as other companies stepped in to provide services. Cloudflare stuck with Gab throughout.
Infrastructure providers have the power to take a site down temporarily, and maybe even do it irreparable damage in the process. But the internet was built to be decentralized precisely to protect speech, so regardless of what you think of the precedent Cloudflare is setting, 8chan will likely be back soon, something Prince readily acknowledges.
“The real thing that kills me is that at the end of the day [dropping 8chan] doesn’t actually fix the problem,” Prince says. “It solves the problem for us, but it doesn’t solve the problem for the internet. It doesn’t address the core causes of why hate festers online.”
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