Cloudflare finally stops enabling (some) hate

Reading the news in the last 48 hours has been tough—mass shootings killed more than 30 people in Ohio and Texas—and the horror played out repeatedly, overwhelmingly, as millions took to debating it on TV, social media and beyond. It hurts to read about, and I wish we weren't here again. 

Much of the attention has focused on the role that a site called 8chan played in this, and a number of other hateful attacks—with the focus quickly falling not on fixing broken, archaic gun ownership laws, but instead on how the site could possibly still be online. 

Given 8chan has been the source of incredible amounts of hate that spreads online in the last few years, how could it still be online? Why hadn't someone pulled the plug on the site? 

Cloudflare, a cloud hosting company that helps sites manage their traffic and DNS (which I wrote about last week) was revealed to be helping the site serve its traffic, through heavy denial of service attacks and thousands of visitors on the site. 

It quickly found itself under heavy customer pressure to drop 8chan, which raised important questions—should an internet infrastructure company wade in and cut them off? 

I've grappled with this a lot in the last few weeks, wondering what the role of these companies is in reducing the spread of hate online, and initially wasn't convinced that Cloudflare dropping them would be the right step. 

If the shoe was on the other foot and hateful parties ran the largest CDN in the world, would legitimate sites be cut off because they disagreed as well? It felt like a complicated rabbit hole. Cloudflare is a network provider, and I struggled to separate it from the fibre optic cables we use to deliver the internet—and having opinions might undercut its ability to service customers.

But, what I came to realize is that Cloudflare is obligated to cut off 8chan as a user of its platform, because it provided them legitimacy, from the largest CDN in the world. By continuing to enable them, as the site clearly directly contributed to terror, the site was treated as if it were any other old forum, not a destination for hate.

It took Cloudflare quite some time to reach this conclusion, but just 24 hours ago it booted the site from the platform. It terminated their account at midnight Pacific Time, and almost immediately went offline—but what happened next surprised me. 

When Cloudflare made a decision about where to draw the line, so too did the other providers it relied on, who didn't want to be left legitimizing the same platform. The site's server hosting platform, Voxility, cut ties with both 8chan and its upstream provider immediately, throwing it entirely offline for a few hours. 

This is why de-platforming works: because it sets the tone for everyone else to follow, and why it's important Cloudflare took a stance. Yes, the site is likely to come back in some shape or form with some other shady CDN, but what we've seen in the past that de-platforming significantly reduces the reach and impact of hate, as it's relegated to the darker corners of the internet.

Cloudflare is not vindicated in my mind here because it has not set a clear policy, and does not react to these issues until people are hurt. Sitting in neutral until something happens isn't going to cut it, and it needs to set the tone for where that line is drawn. Before today, it was only after people were murdered—which needs to change. 

The complexity of all of these issues is wound up in the human part, as well: we must come together and address why mass shootings occur, while not losing sight of the fact that we haven't yet found ways to help those who might be disenchanted and turn to hate online. 

I write here about the relationship between technology and how it shapes the world, but what's important here to me is that we don't hone in on technology companies alone, but a failure to truly draw the line across the board. Mass shootings break out because of weak policy. Hate spreads online, and technology companies do nothing, because of weak policy. 

It's hard to know what shutting down 8chan will do, or how it will play out—but it's fairly obvious what will happen if automatic weapons aren't in the hands of whoever wants one. There just aren't any excuses anymore, because all of this hurts too much to let it be.