Why did Cloudflare change its mind about 8chan?

The horrific shootings in the U.S this weekend - like so many others we’ve seen recently - have a tech angle. While gun control remains top of the agenda, the discussion around the relationship between free speech and our digital infrastructure is becoming more and more urgent as well.

With Cloudfare ending its support for 8chan there are a number of important questions about who’s accountable for what is published online - and how we can build a safer, online environment - that urgently need to be answered.

8chan’s role in the El Paso muders is chilling. The killer posted a ‘manifesto’ on the website, then urged his fellow 8chan users to share his ‘message’ moments before the incident took place.

From Cloudflare’s perspective, then, it seems like a straightforward decision. No one working there could, in good conscience, continue to provide support for such a site. Indeed, with its founder Fredrick Brennan also calling for the site to be shut down, few people will be sad to see it disappear.

Except Cloudfare had been providing support to 8chan for some time. Even following the site’s clear connection to the Christchurch mosque massacre and the Poway Synagogue attack, Cloudfare continued to take the position that it is fundamentally a neutral utility that has no part in making decisions about content that is acceptable and content that isn’t.

Why Cloudflare’s position on 8chan changed

Something clearly changed. The note sent out by CEO Matthew Prince on Sunday placed an emphasis on the site’s ‘lawlessness’:

“they [8chan] 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.”

The decision was made, then, not so much on the basis of content, but rather in the way that the website decides to act on the content that is published on it.

In an interview with Ben Thompson, the writer behind tech newsletter Stratechery, Prince explained this by comparing 8chan with Twitter and Facebook. “Those aren’t lawless platforms,” he said. “They have teams and they have procedures and they take these things seriously, and they’re trying to create a community that respects the rule of law. If you don’t have that, then you do fall into a different bucket.”

Elsewhere in the interview Prince said, “while we think it’s really important that we are not the ones being the arbiter of what is good or bad, if at the end of the day content platforms aren’t taking any responsibility, or in some cases actively thwarting it, and we see that there is real harm that those platforms are doing, then maybe that is the time that we cut people off.”

The challenge for Cloudfare

Cloudfare is clearly walking a difficult line. On the one hand, it’s a service buried beneath layers of platforms, making it problematic to ask it to be accountable for content. On the other, it also such an integral part of digital infrastructure that it is arguably helping to facilitate communities where deadly and hate filled ideas persist and grow.

In the Stratechery interview, Prince points towards the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (legistlation that largely governs how we understand copyright online today) as an example of how something in the digital sphere can be regulated effectively. “It walks through a really clear set of definitions,” he told Ben Thompson. “If you’re an ISP, here’s what your obligations are, if you’re a service that has caching which is being done merely for performance, you have slightly more obligations, etc. It walks down the whole taxonomy of what the Internet stack looks like and regulates it in really specific ways.”

The implication is that when it comes to problematic content and dangerous sites, Cloudflare is finding its own way in the dark. It’s waiting for the world to catch up.

I’m still not sure where I sit on this issue - in terms of the 8chan decision, yes, Cloudflare have done the right thing. But as much as I think there’s something to the criticism that the company are free speech absolutists, I also feel uncomfortable with the idea that a company like Cloudflare (which, let’s be honest, is relative mysterious to most of the planet’s internet users) making decisions about content.

Perhaps the problem is actually more with the very nature of our digital infrastructure rather than just about free speech. If a single organization plays such a big role in keeping websites online, we’re always going to run into problems.

That all being said, as interesting as this discussion is, there’s also a danger that we overdetermine the role technology plays in these horrendous incidents. If technology really is undoing and reconfiguring social relationships, we need to avoid making the mistake of thinking its the only force at play. Race, geography, gender, class are all vital in the make up of the social sphere - technology might operate on and within them, but it certainly doesn’t replace them either.