In 2017, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince decided to terminate the account of the controversial neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer.
“I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet,” he wrote at the time.
The company’s lawyers later explained that the move was meant as an “intellectual exercise” to start a conversation regarding censorship and free speech on the internet. However, external parties took this discussion in a different direction than the one Prince had planned.
For years, Cloudflare had a policy not to remove any accounts without a court order, so when it kicked out Daily Stormer and later 8Chan as well, eyebrows were raised. For example, copyright holders wondered why the company could terminate these accounts but not those of the most notorious pirate sites.
Cloudflare’s seemingly arbitrary termination choices were repeatedly cited in policy discussions and copyright litigation. In addition, it triggered an ongoing wave of termination requests.
Over the past few days, Cloudflare found itself in the midst of a ‘cancel’ discussion again, with people calling on the company to disconnect the harassment-linked forum Kiwi Farms. This prompted Matthew Prince to clarify the company’s stance on offensive, abhorrent, and copyright-infringing content.
No More Voluntary Terminations
The company makes a clear distinction between the various services it offers. When Cloudflare is the primary hosting platform it leaves plenty of room for voluntary terminations. For its CDN, security, and core Internet infrastructure services, voluntary actions will no longer happen.
This strict line in the sand is the result of discussions with policymakers worldwide. Cloudflare sees itself as an Internet utility that should remain as neutral as possible, even when its customers do despicable things.
“Just as the telephone company doesn’t terminate your line if you say awful, racist, bigoted things, we have concluded in consultation with politicians, policy makers, and experts that turning off security services because we think what you publish is despicable is the wrong policy.
“To be clear, just because we did it in a limited set of cases before doesn’t mean we were right when we did. Or that we will ever do it again,” Prince adds, referring to the earlier terminations.
Wave of Requests
While many people applauded Cloudflare for booting out The Daily Stormer and 8Chan, these decisions were actively used against the company. Not just by copyright holders, but also by authoritarian regimes.
“In a deeply troubling response, after both terminations we saw a dramatic increase in authoritarian regimes attempting to have us terminate security services for human rights organizations — often citing the language from our own justification back to us.”
As we suggested back in 2017, Cloudflare essentially handed out free ammunition to adversaries, who could use the voluntary terminations as an argument to request more restrictions. That includes kicking out pirate sites.
Cloudflare is clearly uncomfortable with this position. The company stresses that voluntary terminations will no longer happen for sites that use its CDN or security services. Instead, those demanding action will need to get a court order.
Slippery Termination Slope
In recent years various courts have already ordered Cloudflare to block pirate sites. The company has complied with these orders. However, it vows to fight cases where core infrastructure is at play with tooth and nail. This includes a recent order in Italy, that required the company to block pirate sites on its public DNS resolver 188.8.131.52.
“Unfortunately, these cases are becoming more common where largely copyright holders are attempting to get a ruling in one jurisdiction and have it apply worldwide to terminate core Internet technology services and effectively wipe content offline,” Prince writes.
These global injunctions would set a dangerous precedent, Cloudflare’s CEO says, as it would allow the most restrictive regimes to control what content should be available online. Preventing bad precedents is the prime reason why Cloudflare believes it is important not to intervene voluntarily in the future.
“Holding this line we believe is fundamental for the healthy operation of the global Internet. But each showing of discretion across our security or core Internet technology services weakens our argument in these important cases.”
In other words, Prince doesn’t want another Daily Stormer or 8Chan that can come back to haunt the company in the future. This means that The Pirate Bay and other pirate customers have little to worry about, at least for the time being.
Update September 4: Cloudflare booted Kiwi Farms after all…