The unmoderated site 8chan has hosted some horrifying things, including a hate-filled manifesto that appears to be from the shooter in the El Paso massacre. After 8chan’s cloud network and security provider Cloudflare dumped it, I began to wonder if we’d finally figured out the boundaries of the legitimate internet.
The question of what content is allowed where continues to bedevil the Internet. What will get you kicked off a platform, and what won’t? For example:
- Facebook will cashier you if you post hate repeatedly, like Alex Jones.
- Twitter will dump you if you behave like a troll (unless you’re the president)
- Google will stop indexing you and cancel your domain registration if you behave like a Nazi, as the Daily Stormer did.
These actions are extreme, and companies don’t like to take them — they don’t want to be seen as arbitrary judges of what does and doesn’t belong on the internet. For example, commerce technology vendor Shopify defied calls to stop working with Breitbart, a site that treads as close to the line as possible without being an active hatemonger.
Cloudflare justifies its decision to dump 8chan
After the guy in El Paso shot and killed 20 people, Cloudflare had had enough. It pulled support from 8chan. Here’s some of what its CEO Matthew Prince wrote about the decision.
In the case of the El Paso shooting, the suspected terrorist gunman appears to have been inspired by the forum website known as 8chan. Based on evidence we’ve seen, it appears that he posted a screed to the site immediately before beginning his terrifying attack on the El Paso Walmart killing 20 people. . . .
8chan has repeatedly proven itself to be a cesspool of hate. . . .
We just sent notice that we are terminating 8chan as a customer effective at midnight tonight Pacific Time. The rationale is simple: they 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.
We do not take this decision lightly. Cloudflare is a network provider. In pursuit of our goal of helping build a better internet, we’ve considered it important to provide our security services broadly to make sure as many users as possible are secure, and thereby making cyberattacks less attractive — regardless of the content of those websites. Many of our customers run platforms of their own on top of our network. If our policies are more conservative than theirs it effectively undercuts their ability to run their services and set their own policies. 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.
Prince has made this decision, but worries about the precedent it sets. He sites “The Rule of Law,” which is a strange justification for a company operating across national boundaries that is not responding to any law enforcement request to shut down the site.
We continue to feel incredibly uncomfortable about playing the role of content arbiter and do not plan to exercise it often. Some have wrongly speculated this is due to some conception of the United States’ First Amendment. That is incorrect. . . .
Instead our concern has centered around another much more universal idea: the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law requires policies be transparent and consistent. While it has been articulated as a framework for how governments ensure their legitimacy, we have used it as a touchstone when we think about our own policies.
Cloudflare is not a government. . . . 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.
The unresolved question is how should the law deal with platforms that ignore or actively thwart the Rule of Law? That’s closer to the situation we have seen with the Daily Stormer and 8chan. They are lawless platforms. In cases like these, where platforms have been designed to be lawless and unmoderated, and where the platforms have demonstrated their ability to cause real harm, the law may need additional remedies. We and other technology companies need to work with policy makers in order to help them understand the problem and define these remedies. And, in some cases, it may mean moving enforcement mechanisms further down the technical stack.
What’s the policy here?
Cloudflare has the right to do or not to do business with anyone it wants. It also has an obligation to define its own policies clearly, so anyone that does business with it has an idea of what the rules are.
I’ve examined Cloudflare’s Terms and Conditions. What’s not allowed? This appears to be the relevant passage (emphasis added):
2.7 Acceptable Use
By using the Cloud Services you are agreeing, among other things, that you will not use the Cloud Services to (a) falsely imply any sponsorship or association with Cloudflare; (b) post, transmit, store or link to any files, materials, data, text, audio, video, images or other content that infringe on any person’s intellectual property rights or that are otherwise unlawful; or (c) engage in any activities that are illegal, including disseminating, promoting or facilitating child sexual abuse material or engaging in human trafficking.
So the rule is, you break the law, they can kick you off. But what law did 8chan break?
Inciting violence may be contrary to US law, but the 8chan is hosted globally, not in the US. And 8chan is a platform, and therefore not liable for content it hosts under US law. I’m confused as to whether 8chan actually violated Cloudflare’s terms of service. Being a haven for losers and bigots is not in itself grounds for termination . . . at least under the policies that Cloudflare had at the time.
How to fix this problem
As a nation, we can’t agree on how to fix the problem of people shooting bunches of people in public places. This is very sad, but that’s not the point of this post.
I do think we can fix the problem of postings that incite violence.
Providers like Cloudflare should include incitement to violence in their acceptable use clauses — and require any of its platform customers to enforce a policy banning such content. It’s absurd that 8chan will ban you for posting a copyrighted article, but not for telling people to kill other people because of the color of their skin or the way they talk.
If Cloudflare and others were to enforce such policies, then all such content (including 8chan) would migrate to a set of lawless, and presumably less discriminating, providers.
This might make it easier to see the line between acceptable content and lawless and violent hate.
It’s not easy. That line keeps shifting, and it’s not the same for everyone. But let’s not give up on drawing it, and on keeping the legit providers on the same side where we are.