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Cloudflare and Free Speech


5 min read

At Cloudflare we believe in a free and open web. However, we regularly get questions about controversial content that flows through our network. Yesterday we received the questions below from the about-to-be relaunched European technology blog, The Kernel.

The questions involve one of Cloudflare's users. We have been consistent in our policy, but thought answering these questions in public presented a good opportunity to show how we think about these issues.

We do not confirm any Cloudflare user to the media without the user's permission, so I've edited the questions to remove reference to the site and group in question. That, however, should not keep you from understanding the context or our responses. Here's a way to think about it: whatever your political persuasion, there is undoubtedly some alternate political viewpoint you believe to be dangerous. Assume, for the sake of this argument, that whatever site would exemplify the opposite of your beliefs is the site this blogger is asking about.

To: Cloudflare Media Relations
From: James Cook
Cc: Milo Yiannopoulos
Date: Thu, Aug 8, 2013 at 9:34 AM (PDT)
Subject: Press enquiry - Cloudflare providing services to [controversial group]

I'm writing from The Kernel, a magazine that covers technology, media and politics.

We are preparing a report on [controversial groups] online, which will be published on Monday, 12 August.

Our enquiries have shown that your company, Cloudflare, is responsible for providing services to [some controversial website] and we have a few questions for you.

1) Are you aware that this website has been confirmed as dangerous by the U.S. Government?

I am not sure what this means. I am not aware of any website that the U.S. Government has "confirmed as dangerous." While the U.S. government does prohibit certain dealings with identified terrorist organizations and certain authoritarian regimes, it is not in the business of labeling websites as dangerous. One of the greatest strengths of the United States is a belief that speech, particularly political speech, is sacred. A website, of course, is nothing but speech. Given that the blogger asking these questions is from the UK, a bit of a misunderstanding of U.S. jurisprudence is to be tolerated, even expected.

2) Are you aware of the nature of the material this website hosts?

No, nor would it be right for us to monitor the content that flows through our network and make determinations on what is and what is not politically appropriate. Frankly, that would be creepy. The blogger may be confused about the nature of Cloudflare. We are not a hosting provider. Removing this, or any other site, from our network wouldn't remove the content from the Internet: it would simply slow its performance and make it more vulnerable to attack.

3) What safeguards do you have in place to ensure that Cloudflare does not support illegal terrorist activity?

This question assumes the answer. A website is speech. It is not a bomb. There is no imminent danger it creates and no provider has an affirmative obligation to monitor and make determinations about the theoretically harmful nature of speech a site may contain.

I'm curious if the blogger would ask the same of Google? A quick search shows that Google has about 334,000 pages from the site in question in its cache. Would the blogger suggest that Google should be required not to index this website? Should they need to do so only when ordered by a court, or should they proactively censor the network based on their own biases?

Or consider the example of Comcast, the ISP over which I just accessed the site in question. Like Cloudflare, Comcast provides a network that attempts to deliver content quickly. Comcast is not the host of the site but could, theoretically, enable filters that keep the site from being delivered through its network. Personally, I'd be uncomfortable if an ISP like Comcast did that, even under a court order. It would be tantamount to censoring the Internet and, again, it would be creepy.

4) Do you support campaigns of murder and terror waged [by some controversial group]? If not, why would you allow such hateful material to be protected by your services?

Cloudflare's mission is to build a better web. Today, approximately 4% of web requests flow through our network. And, as we are successful, more and more of the web will sit behind us. It is important, therefore, that we are good stewards maintaining the open and free nature of the Internet.

There are lots of things on the web I find personally distasteful. I have political beliefs, but I don't believe those beliefs should color what is and is not allowed to flow over the network. As we have blogged about before, we often find ourselves on opposite sides of political conflicts. Fundamentally, we are consistent in the fact that our political beliefs will not color who we allow to be fast and safe on the web.

5) Will you undertake to investigate this matter and withdraw Cloudflare's services from this [controversial] material, material which has been directly responsible for [promoting controversial behavior]?

Again, Cloudflare is not a hosting provider. If we were to terminate this, or any other customer, the material wouldn't go away, it would just be a bit slower and be more subject to attack. We do not believe that "investigating" the speech that flows through our network is appropriate. In fact, we think doing so would be creepy.

6) Have you taken legal advice concerning the laws you may be breaking by supporting this material and potentially facilitating illegal activity?

Cloudflare abides by all applicable laws in the countries in which we operate and we firmly support the due process of law. If we were to receive a valid court order that compelled us to not provide service to a customer then we would comply with that court order. We have never received a request to terminate the site in question from any law enforcement authority, let alone a valid order from a court.

7) Your CEO has in the past publicly defended providing services to websites hosting dangerous material. Would his position change if one of his own family was hurt or killed in an incident that could be reliably linked to the [controversial website]?

In a word: no. As a way of proving that point, rather than speculate on a gruesome hypothetical, let's discuss a concrete example. About a year ago, a young hacker broke into my email accounts, rummaged around, and caused a significant amount of damage and embarrassment to me. At the time, the hacker was a Cloudflare user. He even used his Cloudflare-powered site to publish details of the attack. I was furious. It was a direct attack by one of our users specifically targeting me. Despite that, we did not kick him off our network nor should we have.

Cloudflare's mission is to build a better web. Inherently, there will be things on our network that make us uncomfortable. We will continue to abide by the law, serve all customers, and hold consistently to a belief that our proper role is not that of Internet censor.

We protect entire corporate networks, help customers build Internet-scale applications efficiently, accelerate any website or Internet application, ward off DDoS attacks, keep hackers at bay, and can help you on your journey to Zero Trust.

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Matthew Prince|@eastdakota

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