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Welcome to Privacy & Compliance Week: Reflecting Values at Cloudflare’s Core


7 min read

Tomorrow kicks off Cloudflare's Privacy & Compliance Week. Over the course of the week, we'll be announcing ways that our customers can use our service to ensure they are in compliance with an increasingly complicated set of rules and laws around the world.

Early in Cloudflare's history, when Michelle, Lee, and I were talking about the business we wanted to build, we kept coming back to the word trust. We realized early on that if we were not trustworthy then no one would ever choose to route their Internet traffic through us. Above all else, we are in the trust business.

Every employee at Cloudflare goes through orientation. I teach one of the sessions titled "What Is Cloudflare?" I fill several white boards with notes and diagrams talking about where we fit in to the market. But I leave one for the end so I can write the word TRUST, in capital letters, and underline it three times. Trust is the foundation of our business.

Standing Up For Our Customers from Our Early Days

That's why we've made decisions that other companies may not have. In January 2013 the FBI showed up at our door with a National Security Letter requesting information on a customer. It was incredibly scary.

We had fewer than 30 employees at the time. The agents, while professional, were incredibly intimidating. And the letter ordered us to turn over information and forbid us from discussing it with anyone other than our attorneys.

There's a proper role for law enforcement, but National Security Letters, which at the time had almost no oversight, could be written and enforced by a single branch of the US government, and gagged recipients from talking about them indefinitely, ran counter to the foundational principles of due process. So we decided to sue the United States government.

I am thankful for Cloudflare's Board for encouraging us to always fight for our principles. I am also thankful for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who served as our attorneys in the case. It took several years, and we were gagged from talking about it until 2017, but ultimately the FBI withdrew the letter and Congress has taken steps to reform the law and ensure better oversight. There is a proper role for law enforcement, but when it crosses a line and infringes on basic principles of due process, then we believe it's important to challenge it.

It's all about trust.

Recognizing It’s Not Our Data

The same is true for the commercial side of our business. As soon as Cloudflare took off, the ad tech companies came knocking: "Do you have any idea how much you could make if you just let us cookie and retarget individuals passing through your network?" I took a lot of those meetings in our early days, but always came away feeling uneasy. Talking through it with Michelle she concisely expressed why we have never been in the advertising business: "It's not our data."

And that's right. For our customers who do run ads on their sites, if we sold the data then we'd effectively be undercutting them. And, more fundamentally, if we were some invisible service that tracked you online without your knowledge then that would fail the creepiness test. While we believe there can be good ad-supported businesses, Cloudflare will never be one.

As a result, we've always seen any personally identifiable information that passes through our network as a toxic asset. That can be a tension because we are a security company and part of security requires us to be able to know, for instance, if a particular IP address is sending DDoS traffic. But we've invested in implementing or inventing technologies — like Universal SSL, Privacy Pass, Encrypted DNS, and ESNI — that keep your private data private, including from us.

Again, it's all about trust.

Privacy In Our DNA

While Cloudflare started in California, we have had a global perspective from our earliest days. Today, nearly half of our C-level executives are Europeans, including our CTO, CIO, and CFO. Michelle, my co-founder and Cloudflare's COO, is Canadian, a country that shares many of Europe's values around privacy. We have offices around the world and far more engineers working outside of Silicon Valley than inside of it.

I wrote the first version of our Privacy Policy in early 2010, before we signed up our first customer. It included from the first draft this clear statement: "Cloudflare will not sell, rent, or give away any of your personal information without your consent. It is our overriding privacy principle that any personal information you provide to us is just that: private." That is still true today. While other tech companies have made their policies more flexible over time, we've made ours stricter, including committing to a list of things we have never done and will fight like hell to never do:

  • Cloudflare has never turned over our encryption or authentication keys or our customers' encryption or authentication keys to anyone.
  • Cloudflare has never installed any law enforcement software or equipment anywhere on our network.
  • Cloudflare has never provided any law enforcement organization a feed of our customers' content transiting our network.
  • Cloudflare has never modified customer content at the request of law enforcement or another third party.
  • Cloudflare has never modified the intended destination of DNS responses at the request of law enforcement or another third party.
  • Cloudflare has never weakened, compromised, or subverted any of its encryption at the request of law enforcement or another third party.

While many tech companies struggled to comply with privacy regulations such as GDPR, at Cloudflare it was relatively easy because the principles it imposed were at our core from our very outset. We don't have a business if we don't have trust, and being transparent, principled, and respecting the sanctity of personal data is critical to us continuously earning that trust.

Improving the Privacy of Our Service

But we’re not done; we can do more. There are things that have irked me about our service for a long time. For instance, from our earliest days we’ve used the _cfduid cookie to help with some of our security functions. That has meant that if you used Cloudflare you couldn’t be completely cookieless. John Graham-Cumming and I challenged the team earlier this year to see if we could kill it. Our team rose to the challenge and this week we're announcing its deprecation. To my mind, that announcement alone is worth an entire week of celebrations.

We have multiple data centers around the world that aggregate and process data in order to display logs and provide features. While having geographic redundancy helps with availability, some customers want to make sure their data never leaves a particular region. This week we'll be giving users a lot more control over what data is processed where.

And, like we have during Privacy and Encryption weeks in years past, we will continue to invest in technologies to enable better encryption and more private use of core Internet services like DNS. Wouldn’t it be cool if, for example, we could ensure that no DNS provider could ever see both who is using their service and also where on the Internet those users are going? Stay tuned!

Helping Customers With Increasingly Complex Compliance Challenges

While we continue to invest in ensuring Cloudflare leads the way on privacy, more and more of our customers are also looking for solutions to be more private themselves. This month we expect that the EU's new Digital Services Act will be proposed. We expect that it will continue to raise the bar on how companies do business in Europe. While the Internet giants will have the resources to comply with these heightened requirements, for everyone else they will create new challenges.

To that end, this week we're announcing the Cloudflare Data Localization Suite. It provides our customers with a powerful set of tools to ensure they have control over how and where their data is processed in order to help comply with increasingly complex local data processing requirements. This includes enhancements to Workers, our edge computing and storage platform, to help modern applications get built such that users' data never leaves their own country or region.

It's clear to us that the model of sending all your customer data back to a data center in Ashburn, Virginia, regardless of where those customers are located in the world, will look as antiquated in an increasingly privacy-conscious world as carrying a stack of punch cards to a central mainframe would today. In the not too distant future, regulations are inevitably going to force data storage and processing to be local. And, with a network that today already spans more than 100 countries, Cloudflare stands ready to help our customers enable that more private future.

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned this week to our blog for a series of announcements. Since these are topics that are so important in Europe right now, we’ll be simultaneously publishing most of them in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German as well as English. Also check out Cloudflare TV where we'll be interviewing a series of people whose views on privacy and compliance we respect and have learned from.

Cloudflare's mission is to help build a better Internet. And there is no doubt that a better Internet is a more private Internet. With that in mind, welcome to Privacy & Compliance Week.

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.

Visit from any device to get started with our free app that makes your Internet faster and safer.

To learn more about our mission to help build a better Internet, start here. If you're looking for a new career direction, check out our open positions.
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Matthew Prince|@eastdakota

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