Why Banning 8chan Was So Hard for Cloudflare: ‘No One Should Have That Power’

By 2019-08-05News

Why Banning 8chan Was So Hard for Cloudflare: ‘No One Should Have That Power’


Early Monday, 8chan, the anonymous message board where the man accused of carrying out the El Paso massacre posted his manifesto, went offline.

The man most responsible for the outage wasn’t Jim Watkins, 8chan’s owner, or his son Ronald, the message board’s administrator.

Instead, the decision to take 8chan offline, at least temporarily, fell largely to Matthew Prince, the chief executive of the little-known San Francisco company Cloudflare.

Cloudflare provides tools that protect websites from cyberattacks and allows sites to load content more quickly. It is a critical tool for sites like 8chan where extremists gather. Without the kind of protection that Cloudflare offers, 8chan can be barraged by automated, hard-to-prevent attacks from its critics, making it nearly impossible to stay online.

Mr. Prince has become an unlikely focal point for critics of 8chan and other vile parts of the internet. Cloudflare’s service protects a large chunk of the internet, and for years, the decade-old company avoided making decisions about which sites deserved protection and which did not.

That changed in 2017, after white nationalists held a violent rally in Charlottesville, Va. After the rally, Mr. Prince was pressured to remove The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi hate site, from Cloudflare’s service. He eventually agreed to do so. It was a break from the company’s content-neutral stance, and Mr. Prince expressed reservations about his choice.

“I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the internet,” he said at the time. “No one should have that power.”

[8chan is a megaphone for gunmen. ‘Shut the site down,’ says its creator.]

But as one of several internet executives with control over the web’s most basic infrastructure, Mr. Prince does have that power. And in the wake of the El Paso shooting, the calls for him to exercise it by revoking 8chan’s security protections grew louder. I wanted to talk to him about how he thought through the decision, and about how he eventually chose to effectively kick 8chan off the internet, if only temporarily.

In two interviews on Sunday, Mr. Prince expressed a range of views about Cloudflare’s responsibility with regard to 8chan.

In a phone conversation in the early afternoon, Mr. Prince sounded torn: On one hand, 8chan was clearly reprehensible, and depriving it of the protection Cloudflare provides would rid him of a troublesome customer and a huge headache. On the other hand, banning 8chan could set a bad precedent, and it could make it harder for law enforcement authorities to monitor violent extremists. Cloudflare, like other tech companies with a window onto dark internet activity, can share information about crimes with investigators.

Banning 8chan “would make our lives a lot easier,” Mr. Prince said, “but it would make the job of law enforcement and controlling hate groups online harder.”

[Read the latest updates on the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.]

Among Cloudflare employees, there was disagreement. Some thought that banning 8chan was a clear-cut moral imperative; others thought it could create a slippery slope to censorship. Douglas Kramer, Cloudflare’s general counsel, spent much of Sunday afternoon telling news outlets that Cloudflare would not ban 8chan because of its content, saying, “We’re largely a neutral utility service.”

Hours later, Mr. Prince called me back. He had decided to cut off 8chan. He characterized the site as a “lawless” platform that had willfully ignored warnings about violent extremism. Its tolerance for hate, he said, made 8chan different from other sites where extremists gather, like Facebook or Twitter.

“They’ve been not only actively ignoring complaints they receive, but sometimes weaponizing those complaints against people who are complaining about them,” Mr. Prince said. “That lawlessness feels like a real distinction from the Facebooks of the world.”

Removing 8chan was not a straightforward decision, Mr. Prince said, in part because Cloudflare does not host or promote any of the site’s content. Most people would agree, he said, that a newspaper publisher should be responsible for the stories in the paper. But what about the person who operates the printing press, or the ink supplier? Should that person be responsible, too?

ImageCloudflare’s network operations center in San Francisco. The company provides tools that protect against cyberattacks, critical for sites like 8chan where extremists gather.
Cloudflare’s network operations center in San Francisco. The company provides tools that protect against cyberattacks, critical for sites like 8chan where extremists gather.CreditChristie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

“It’s dangerous for infrastructure companies to be making what are editorial decisions,” he said. “The deeper you get into the technology stack, the harder it becomes to make those decisions.”

Ultimately, Mr. Prince said, he decided that 8chan was too centrally organized around hate, and more willing to ignore laws against violent incitement in order to avoid moderating its platform. The realization, along with the multiple mass murders that the authorities have connected to 8chan, tipped the scale in favor of a ban.

“If we see a bad thing in the world and we can help get in front of it, we have some obligation to do that,” he said.

Mr. Prince, who announced the removal of 8chan from Cloudflare in a 1,300-word blog post on Sunday night, still worries about setting a bad precedent. He theorized that a repressive Middle Eastern government could cite the 8chan example when asking Cloudflare to remove security protections for an L.G.B.T. group inside its borders, since it might technically be “lawless” to promote homosexuality in that country.

“We have to make sure we’re setting policies where we can push back on those things,” he said.

He added that even if a hacker took advantage of 8chan’s lack of defenses, he did not expect the site to stay offline for long. Many companies now offer security services similar to Cloudflare’s, and it might be possible for 8chan to find another provider in short order. (8chan was down for hours on Monday morning, although its administrator said on Twitter that the site would soon be back up after moving to another security provider, BitMitigate.)

It is undeniably true that the underlying problem of online hate is bigger than one website, and that taking 8chan offline, even permanently, would not stop violent hatred from leaping off the internet and onto America’s streets. There will always be another message board, another hosting provider, another security service willing to give harbor to extremists.

But as he prepared to serve 8chan with an eviction notice, Mr. Prince sounded sure of his choice.

“We’ll see how this turns out,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to regret this for a second.”

US News

via nytimes https://nytimes.com

August 5, 2019 at 10:45AM