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Cloudflare Takes A Stand Against Online Lawlessness

By Tina Casey

U.S. companies have always been sensitive when it comes to brand reputation, and those concerns have grown increasingly fraught during the Trump administration. Business leaders are generally reluctant to criticize any elected official for bad behavior, especially the President of the United States. That makes it difficult for business stakeholders to speak out when the President issues public statements that are racist by any objective standard.

Nevertheless, some companies have found their voices, by staking out the moral high ground on broader terms. The latest example is the leading web hosting service provider, Cloudflare.

Cloudflare draws a clean, bright line

Cloudflare has previously been criticized for continuing to provide web services to the online discussion group 8chan, despite its notoriety as a gathering place for racist commentary, among other offensive topics.

The company finally took action this week, in response to last weekend’s mass murders in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. 

In blog post his company released earlier this week, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince announced the termination of services to 8chan. He also explained that decision was made after reports surfaced that the El Paso shooter had posted a racist manifesto on the message board shortly before killing 22 people at a local Walmart.

Prince did not overtly draw the connection to the President’s racist rhetoric, but he did not have to. Reporters and other observers were quick to point out that the El Paso shooter’s manifesto closely echoed the President’s frequent references to an immigrant “invasion,” among other rhetorical similarities.

Instead, Prince drew attention to a pattern of incitement to lawlessness on 8chan. He noted at least two other recent episodes in which a white terrorist broadcasted his intentions on 8chan before going on a killing spree, one in New Zealand and one in California.

In addition, Prince was careful to make the distinction between censorship over language and responding appropriately to lawlessness. He stated that “8chan has repeatedly proven itself to be a cesspool of hate,” but he also stated that Cloudflare’s decision to terminate service was not based on “hate-filled” content. The decision was based on lawless content, specifically content that incites others to violence.

As Prince explained:

“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. 8chan has crossed that line. It will therefore no longer be allowed to use our services.”

Calling out bad behavior

Prince could have just as easily been referring to a long series of public statements by President Trump attacking people of color and referring to an “invasion” of non-whites, language directly echoed by the El Paso terrorist.

However, rather than drawing a connection to the President’s statements, Prince echoed the anti-racist stand taken by the children’s publishing company Highlights as well as more recently, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser.

In all three cases, the companies did not criticize the President as a person for being a racist. Instead, they underscored the importance fundamental human values.

For Highlights the issue was “human decency, plain and simple,” in responding to the President’s policy on the treatment of immigrant families. More recently, Plank used a personal Twitter post to respond to the President’s attacks on four sitting U.S. Representatives, all four of whom are women and people of color. Plank’s Twitter message drew attention to Under Armour’s 2017 video launching its “We Will” community engagement program, focusing on the diverse population of Baltimore, his company’s home town.

Kaeser was more explicit. He responded to the same series of attacks on Twitter by affirming the values of “freedom, tolerance, and openness” against the “racism and exclusion” that now characterizes the office of the current U.S. President.

In the case of Cloudflare, Prince also drew a broader picture. He explained that dropping 8chan as a customer solved a problem for the company, but it “does nothing to address why mass shootings occur” and it “does nothing to address why portions of the population feel so disenchanted they turn to hate.”

The “Rule of Law” and the limits of corporate activism

In the absence of leadership from the federal government, corporate leaders have been stepping up to advocate for issues of broad social concern including gun safety, LGBTQ rights, climate change as well as immigrant rights.

Corporate social responsibility has its limits, though, and Prince’s blog post was also an appeal for government to step in and set standards. 

Prince framed his case for government standards under the concept of the “Rule of Law,” as globally recognized principle.

Here in the U.S., the federal court system defines the Rule of Law as a system of accountability: 

“Rule of law is a principle under which all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to laws that are: 

  • Publicly promulgated 
  • Equally enforced 
  • Independently adjudicated 
  • And consistent with international human rights principles.” 

For Cloudflare, Prince explained, these principles have translated into policies that are “transparent and consistent.” He credited that approach for building the company into a global leadership role as an internet service provider leadership role, but he also argued that corporate activism can only go so far:

“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. Questions around content are real societal issues that need politically legitimate solutions.”

For a democratic society, that legitimacy must come from the voting public, through their elected representatives.

In effect, Prince’s blog post is a call for the voting public to pick up where political leadership has left off.

Meanwhile, it appears that corporate activism is still growing in strength.

After Cloudflare dropped 8chan, the site reportedly entered into an agreement with another web services called BitMitigate. That company comes under the umbrella of a Washington-based firm called Epik, which is known for its hosting of the hate sites Gab and Daily Stormer when they lost their providers.

Apparently, the addition of 8chan was too much for Epik’s web own services provider, Voxility. As of this writing, Voxility has announced that it is no longer working with Epik, leaving 8chan offline and in search for another provider.

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Image credit of El Paso, Texas: David Mark/Flickr

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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