Most internet users probably don’t even know that Cloudflare exists. But the company’s offerings are essential to the functioning of the Internet. Because it is difficult to explain exactly what the company does, Cloudflare trades as an “internet service provider” in most press reports. In fact, in addition to protection against DDoS attacks, the company primarily offers what is known as a content delivery network. This means that websites and online services can be accessed by users on servers distributed around the world and that peak loads in Internet traffic are balanced out.
Sounds boring, but it is immensely important. According to rough estimates, up to 20 percent of all Internet offerings rely on these services. In the best-case scenario, all of this takes place in the background, and so most users are only aware of their existence when something goes terribly wrong and then nothing works at all on their favorite places on the web.
A lot has gone wrong in the last few months. That’s where a web forum called Kiwi Farms comes in, until recently also a Cloudflare customer. It’s one of those places on the internet where right-wing trolls congregate to pour concentrated hate on LGBTQ people, women, and just about anyone else whose way of life doesn’t suit them. A popular method is the so-called swatting. Special task forces are sent by police authorities under false pretenses to the address of the chosen victims. There have been several deaths in the past. For ten years, the users of Kiwi Farms were able to wreak havoc there. Pretty much everything about the story is terrible.
This leads to the question of what kind of social responsibility the providers of digital infrastructure actually have. Cloudflare has long been urged to end its support of Kiwi Farms. At the beginning of September the time had finally come and the forum has since disappeared into oblivion. According to press reports, at least three previous suicides were directly linked to what was happening on the platform.
To explain the procrastination, the company resorts to surprisingly outdated analogies. “Just as the phone company won’t block your line if you say horrible, racist, bigoted things,” Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince said in a public blog about the decision, “in consultation with politicians, decision makers and experts, we have come to this conclusion that it is the wrong policy to shut down security services because we find their publications despicable.”
A bad comparison: A public portal on the Internet, which, as in the case of Kiwi Farms, has attracted almost ten million visitors a month, is hardly the same as a private telephone conversation. Elsewhere, Prince introduced the fire department as an analogy. They also don’t differentiate based on the morals and character of the residents, which houses they should delete and which not.
So, rhetorically, you are moving into the vicinity of public utility companies. And it doesn’t mention that you’ve earned good money with the hateful clientele. While arguing with possible abuse of power and the open Pandora’s box sounds noble and prudent, it is a popular excuse among tech companies – Facebook and other corporations have also referred to it in the past – to justify their inaction against hate speech online and at the same time to avoid social debates.
Of course, the moral dilemma that comes with moderating Internet content is a bit more complex than following the policy of deleting bad content—and leaving good content alone. Despite everything: A website is not a telephone. But rather an amplifier in public space. And those who see themselves as part of the infrastructure should also protect this space.