Tech’s Obligation to Free Speech Versus Combatting Hate

Every major Internet registrar, including the Russians, has so far rejected neo-Nazi hate spewing Daily Stormer’s search for a home on the World Wide Web. Soon, it will probably be relegated to the fetid hollows of the Dark Web, a place where 4chan hackers and criminals lurk.

Daily Stormer’s defenestration began when hosting provider GoDaddy gave them 24 hours to seek another platform. After that, Google booted them, followed by content distribution network CloudFlare, whose approach was, I found, particularly thoughtful and balanced.

See, it’s easy to grab the torches and pitchforks to go after bona fide Nazis. It’s a little harder, but not much, to shut down an internal, anonymous group because someone is offended that people there support Donald Trump. Inside a company’s own infrastructure, with its own employees and contractors, censorship and groupthink are perfectly legal and widely practiced. Just ask Google.

But as a public provider of data service, things get a little more complex.

That’s why CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince penned a very well-documented blog post detailing “why we terminated Daily Stormer.” It’s really a must read for anyone who needs a primer on why the Internet is such a complex place.

In the end, legally, as a company (not the government), CloudFlare can do as it wishes. In an email to employees, Prince said as much:

This was my decision. Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion. My rationale for making this decision was simple: the people behind the Daily Stormer are assholes and I’d had enough.

“This was an arbitrary decision,” he added.

I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet. I called our legal team and told them what we were going to do. I called our Trust & Safety team and had them stop the service. It was a decision I could make because I’m the CEO of a major Internet infrastructure company.

Then, in his blog post, Prince explained “why it’s so dangerous.” Read his whole post to get the background, but it’s summed up with these words:

Without a clear framework as a guide for content regulation, a small number of companies will largely determine what can and cannot be online.

Back in the 1990s, I used to run an ISP. Those were the days of dialup and AOL CDs in the mail. We were pioneers in the wireless Internet space, in providing DSL, and even managed a city-owned cable Internet operation. One of the more popular services we offered was known as Usenet. It still (I believe) exists today, but back then, it was kind of like Reddit mixed with every porn site, 4chan, and chat room.

We had a really good Usenet service, utilizing high bandwidth fiber optic and hi-band satellite connections. Yes, it still took 5 minutes to download one short video on a modem, but people were more patient then.

When I became a Christian in 2000, one of my first acts was to terminate some of our “alt.binary” Usenet forums. I did this because they were primarily filled with pornography and I didn’t want to serve or store that content on our equipment. It was my company, I was the CEO, and I made the decision.

You should have heard the blowback and the venom, cries of “censorship!” echoing through the offices. I told my staff that anyone who complained could be forwarded to me and I would personally speak to them. I was shocked at who some of the loudest complainers were (especially the ones who avoided telling me what specific content I’d blocked them from seeing).

I always explained: is it censorship when Kroger refuses to sell “Hustler” magazine in its stores? No…but that’s different, they’d answer. How is it different? Then they’d change the subject, and the petulant ones would ask to have their accounts canceled. Fine by me: I didn’t want to be a pornography distributor.

In the same vein, CloudFlare didn’t want to be a Nazi propaganda distributor. And neither (so far) did anyone else.

But where does the line get drawn? Where’ the line between “I”m the CEO and this is repugnant to me” and “I’m under political pressure to wash my hands of this”?

Here’s what Prince wrote:

We’re going to have a long debate internally about whether we need to remove the bullet about not terminating a customer due to political pressure. It’s powerful to be able to say you’ve never done something. And, after today, make no mistake, it will be a little bit harder for us to argue against a government somewhere pressuring us into taking down a site they don’t like.

The United States government has no right to pressure anyone to remove a site it doesn’t like. That’s what the First Amendment protects us from. But other governments, like China, don’t have those rights. Google and now Apple have both yielded to the Chinese in removing parts of their offerings that are offensive to the Communist government. (Don’t get me started on Hollywood‘s obsequious bowing to the Chinese.)

CloudFlare has the right approach to this thorny topic. They have a corporate culture where free speech is inculcated into the team, versus one where groupthink and crowd-pleasing is the norm.

Someone on our team asked after I announced we were going to terminate the Daily Stormer: “Is this the day the Internet dies?” He was half joking, but only half. He’s no fan of the Daily Stormer or sites like it. But he does realize the risks of a company like Cloudflare getting into content policing.

I think we already know where Google, Twitter and other companies stand on this issue. Purging content because the private company owners don’t like it is bad enough (the main stream media does it for a living), but denying a voice on the basis of political pressure, “going along to get along,” will be the day the Internet really does die.