Cloudflare, an Internet infrastructure and website security company, on Monday announced that it was cutting service to 8chan, an online forum it called a "cesspool of hate."
The move was motivated by the role 8chan played in mass shootings in El Paso, Texas; Christchurch, New Zealand; and Poway, California.
"The rationale is simple: They have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths," wrote Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince in an online post. "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."
Cloudflare did not make its decision to cut 8chan loose lightly, he added, especially since it's the company's goal to provide security services to as many websites as possible regardless of the content of those sites.
"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," he wrote. "8chan has crossed that line. It will therefore no longer be allowed to use our services."
Following Cloudflare's announcement, 8chan warned its users there might be some disruption in their service. "There might be some downtime in the next 24-48 hours while we find a solution (that includes our email so timely compliance with law enforcement requests may be affected)," it wrote on Twitter.
8chan reportedly found a Cloudflare alternative, BitMitigate, which also came to the rescue of neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer after Cloudflare cut the cord. However, it turns out that BitMitigate provides its services to sites like 8chan and Daily Stormer through an Infrastructure as a Service provider, Voxility, which decided to follow Cloudflare's lead and cut off service to BitMitigate.
8chan isn't alone in offering a controversial forum. "There are sites out there like 8chan that thrive on bringing people together to discuss taboo and destructive topics," said Karen North, director of the
Annenberg Program on Online Communities at University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
"For the people that do that, those sites are a Mecca because not only can they discuss their frustration and anger, but they can amplify it and exaggerate it because there is no accountability," she told TechNewsWorld. "When you add to that these troubled, mentally ill people who are encouraged and inspired by those conversations, it becomes very dangerous."
Sending a Message
This isn't Cloudflare's first rodeo with hate speech, so it holds no illusions about the impact of its actions.
"Unfortunately, we have seen this situation before and so we have a good sense of what will play out," Prince wrote.
"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," he noted.
"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," Prince observed.
"While removing 8chan from our network takes heat off of us, it does nothing to address why hateful sites fester online," he added. "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."
The decision to boot 8chan likely will cost Cloudflare some business.
"It'll likely lead many such groups to terminate CloudFlare services, but there are plenty of other companies, including BitMitigate, that they can go to," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, a technology advisory firm in Hayward, California.
"The fact is that the Internet is so large, complex and diverse that there are plenty of virtual rocks for extremists to hide under," he told TechNewsWorld.
Still, Cloudflare's efforts deserve praise, maintained Madihha Ahussain, special counsel for Anti-Muslim Bigotry at Muslim Advocates, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
"The action by Cloudflare is a really important step they took as a company. It sends a message that they are no longer going to allow this type of behavior and this type of rhetoric," she told TechNewsWorld.
"It doesn't mean hate is going to go away from the Internet, but we need companies like Cloudflare to take a stand and create a norm that this type of speech is not going to be acceptable," Ahussain said.
While Cloudflare stoutly stands behind its decision to terminate its relationship with 8chan, it does so with some discomfort.
"We continue to feel incredibly uncomfortable about playing the role of content arbiter and do not plan to exercise it often," Prince wrote.
"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," he added.
"Questions around content are real societal issues that need politically legitimate solutions," Prince continued. "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."
Social media companies are private entities that can make decisions about what they want their company to stand for, Ahussain pointed out.
"No company should be behind the idea that people can be targeted based on their faith or the color of their skin or their sexual preferences in the name of free speech," she said.
In the end, Cloudflare determined that 8chan either didn't have effective moderation policies or essentially was ignoring legitimate complaints about users' extremist behavior, observed King.
"The moral of this particular story is that if websites aren't willing to police themselves, they open the door to being policed by others," he warned. "That's an imperfect approach, since it could lead to the repressive online policies that are in place in some other countries."
John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter
since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the
Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government
Security News. Email John.