Cloudflare, Daily Stormer and Free Speech Post-Charlottesville

The Daily Stormer is a Neo-Nazi web forum on the internet that takes its name from the Nazi Party’s tabloid newspaper Der Stürmer.  The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the Daily Stormer as a website

dedicated to spreading anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, and white nationalism, primarily through guttural hyperbole and epithet-laden stories about topics like alleged Jewish world control and black-on-white crime.

Daily Stormer, however, triggered an internet backlash after it smeared Charlottesville attack victim Heather Heyer as a “Fat, Childless 32-Year Old Slut” (see below).

GoDaddy quickly dropped the site, as did Cloudflare – albeit reluctantly.  Cloudflare explained that the “tipping point for us making this decision was that the team behind Daily Stormer made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology.”

Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince explained:

My rationale for making this decision was simple: the people behind the Daily Stormer are assholes and I’d had enough.

Let me be clear: this was an arbitrary decision.  . . . It was a decision I could make because I’m the CEO of a major Internet infrastructure company.

Having made that decision we now need to talk about why it is so dangerous. I’ll be posting something on our blog later today. Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.

In a related blog post, he noted:

Someone on our team asked after I announced we were going to terminate the Daily Stormer: “Is this the day the Internet dies?” He was half joking, but only half. He’s no fan of the Daily Stormer or sites like it. But he does realize the risks of a company like Cloudflare getting into content policing.

There’s a saying in legal circles that hard cases make bad law. We need to be careful of that here. What I do hope is it will allow us all to discuss what the framework for all of the organizations listed above should be when it comes to content restrictions. I don’t know the right answer, but I do know that as we work it out it’s critical we be clear, transparent, consistent and respectful of Due Process.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) responded with alarm:

Even for free speech advocates, this situation is deeply fraught with emotional, logistical, and legal twists and turns. All fair-minded people must stand against the hateful violence and aggression that seems to be growing across our country. But we must also recognize that on the Internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with. . . . Protecting free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected. We do it because we believe that no one—not the government and not private commercial enterprises—should decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t.

The EFF warned providers not to have their policies driven by headlines and stressed the need for open, transparent standards.

These are methods that protect us all against overbroad or arbitrary takedowns. It’s notable that in GoDaddy and Google’s eagerness to swiftly distance themselves from American neo-Nazis, no process was followed; CloudFlare’s Prince also admitted that the decision was “not CloudFlare’s policy.” Policies give guidance as to what we might expect, and an opportunity to see justice is done. We should think carefully before throwing them away.

See also EFF blog post – 10+ Years of Activists Silenced: Internet Intermediaries’ Long History of Censorship.

Since we are talking private entities, this is not a First Amendment issue.  We should be mindful of the private companies’ freedom to contract and do business with whom they choose.  In this case, Daily Stormer was openly stating that Cloudflare’s tolerance was, in reality, a silent endorsement of their ideology of hate.  Freedom of speech does not include freedom from consequences and does not immunize actions that flow from that speech.  As Cloudflare’s CEO explained, “the people behind the Daily Stormer are assholes and I’d had enough” and that is their right.

At the same time, as we advocate for the need for net neutrality to prevent big corporate internet service providers from being able to regulate content on the internet, we should share Cloudflare’s and the EFF’s disquiet over such a termination and not necessarily applaud Daily Stormer’s banishment.  The various internet backbone providers should state their policies and procedures for such content and make decisions based on those policies and procedures and not based on headlines or fear of a social media backlash.

Freedom of expression includes the right to offend or even blaspheme.  If anyone knows about the value and consequences of free speech it is Salmun Rushdie, who was forced into hiding as a result of a backlash and fatwa that followed publication of his novel “Satanic Verses.”  Rushdie has stressed that no one “has the right to not be offended.” Rushdie also warned about censoring hate speech:

Reprehensible ideas don’t disappear if you make them illegal, by driving them under the carpet you might feed them, or make them taboo … I’d rather know the racist in the room.


Cover Photo: Karla Cote, Charlottesville


2 thoughts on “Cloudflare, Daily Stormer and Free Speech Post-Charlottesville

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