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The U.S. website security company Cloudflare and the Canadian domain registrar Tucows have been in the headlines recently because of the roles they have played as service providers to 8chan, the notorious “cesspool of hate” where users routinely glorify atrocities like the shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio; the mosque bombings in Christchurch, New Zealand; and the attacks at synagogues in Poway, California and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While these two companies were right to finally cut ties with 8chan after mounting public pressure, they should also be cutting their ties to other bad actors on the Internet, including those that engage in online piracy.
While most respectable companies would immediately distance themselves from neo-Nazi websites or those promoting and celebrating racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim violence, companies like Cloudflare have merely shrugged and dismissed all this as a free speech issue. Notably, Matthew Prince, co-founder and CEO of Cloudflare, has taken the extreme view that his company should serve any customer that comes his way. He implies that this is a moral stance, not an economic one. He recently argued, “We’re a content-neutral service for many reasons, the biggest of which is: I don’t think my whims, and those of Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg should determine what’s online.”
But clearly this is a false choice. There are more options than “letting a handful of tech titans censor the Internet as they see fit” and “having absolutely no standards for online content.” Indeed, while most online service providers will prohibit illegal activity as a matter of course, most go further and set terms of service that restrict a variety of objectionable behavior. One reason for using terms of service rather than laws to screen potential customers is that what is considered criminal activity may vary by jurisdiction—for example, different countries place different limits on free speech. Most companies can and do have higher standards. But, unfortunately, some don’t.
Some companies have argued that they should not impose any meaningful restrictions on who can use their services. They say making that determination is not their responsibility. For example, the Cloudflare CEO argues by analogy that while a newspaper should be responsible for what it prints, the ink supplier should not be responsible. But even if you accept the analogy (and many people do—it is similar to the one made by gun manufacturers), there is a difference between not holding the ink supplier responsible for what is printed and not holding the ink supplier accountable for its decision to come back day after day to supply ink to a newspaper that it knows exists only to promote hate speech. But that is a poor analogy. A better analogy is that while a newspaper should be responsible for the content it prints, so too should a newsstand be responsible for the newspapers it sells. No one objects when newsstands decide not to sell Nazi propaganda rags; in fact, society expects that they won’t.
And 8chan is just the tip of the iceberg. Sites like Cloudflare and Tucows have a long list of clients who they provide service to even though they are known to engage in bad behavior. For example, Cloudflare and Tucows have both drawn scrutiny for turning a blind eye to piracy websites that use their services. The European Commission’s 2018 Counterfeit and Piracy Watch List report noted that “CloudFlare is used by approximately 40% of the pirate websites in the world… Out of the top 500 infringing domains based on global Alexa rankings, 62% (311) are using CloudFlare’s services according to stakeholders. A sample list of 6,337 infringing domain names presented by the film industry showed over 30% (2,119) using CloudFlare’s services.”
Tucows similarly does not have its hands clean. The U.S. Trade Representative’s “Notorious Markets” report, which highlights online and physical marketplaces facilitating copyright piracy and trademark counterfeiting, has flagged Tucows as being among its repeat offenders. The report noted that “Tucows is reportedly an example of a registrar that fails to take action when notified of its clients’ infringing activity.” And, a few years ago, when the Pirate Bay founder decided to launch a piracy-friendly service to hide the owners of various web domains, he chose Tucows to be his domain wholesaler.
Many free speech absolutists cringe at the idea of private companies acting as gatekeepers to online speech. But the likely alternatives—such as government setting the rules for online companies or alternatively these companies simply turning a blind eye and giving free rein to any and all paying customers—are even worse. The former would represent an erosion of First Amendment rights and the latter would merely empower sites like 8chan to grow larger and more toxic.
The better option is to demand online service providers set reasonable terms of service. A company like Cloudflare, for example, which is reportedly planning an IPO, would likely change its tune if the majority of Fortune 500 companies announced that they would no longer remain customers if it continues to also provide services to sites like 8chan, or if Wall Street refused to offer its IPO.
Change is needed. 8chan should just be the start. It is time that these companies stop using platitudes and pablum to defend the worst of the web.