The white supremacist site The Daily Stormer has taken a nomadic journey around the web this week, searching for a permanent home after being booted by the hosting and domain registry company GoDaddy. Throughout its bizarre odyssey, though, the infrastructure and web services company Cloudflare has defended the site against cyber attacks, particularly DDoS attacks. Wednesday, Cloudflare finally pulled the plug. Without its protection, The Daily Stormer promptly crashed.
Known for racist and neo-Nazi content, The Daily Stormer rose to national prominence this week amidst tension over President Donald Trump’s statements about tragic violence at protests in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend. After GoDaddy cut ties with the site, it temporarily restored hosting though Google before that company dropped the site as well for violating its terms of service. Next, The Daily Stormer went underground, setting up shop through Tor on the dark web. The site eventually found a more public-facing home at a Russian domain, until Cloudflare pulled its support. Twitter blocked the site’s account Wednesday as well.
The situation intensifies a longstanding debate over the role web services play in moderating online discourse. Historically, companies that provide infrastructure defense, hosting, and domain maintenance around the web dissociate themselves from the content on any given site. But these services underpin each site and therefore have significant power over their stability and viability—if they choose to exercise it.
Cloudflare has long asserted its neutrality, and willingness to protect any site, even offering defense services to clients who are in direct conflict, like sites on both sides of Hong Kong’s contentious 2014 suffrage referendum. Company CEO Matthew Prince has consistently argued that openness keeps Cloudflare from becoming a moral arbiter of content.
“These aren’t simple questions,” Prince said at the Black Hat Security conference in 2013. “We have 1.5 million customers, among them the Turkish government, the Muslim Brotherhood, organizations that do suppress freedom of speech and cause me great consternation use us like crazy. … [But] I think it’s really tricky when private organizations act as law enforcement.”
Years later, the ethical conflict came to an apparent head. As GoDaddy exiled The Daily Stormer, Cloudflare faced increasing pressure to do so as well. On Tuesday, the company gave a tepid statement, saying that it was “aware of the concerns that have been raised over some sites that have use our network” and that “Cloudflare terminating any user would not remove their content from the internet, it would simply make a site slower and more vulnerable to attack.”
Which did, in fact, happen. On Wednesday, the white supremacist hacker Andrew Auernheimer (also known as ‘weev’) wrote, “Cloudflare just folded on us. Into new territory. Going to have to buy IPs.” Daily Stormer architect Andrew Anglin added, “I have effectively been banned by ICANN, as well as the monopolistic anti-ddosing service Cloudflare. … We will be back on dailystormer.something soon. The Cloudflare betrayal adds another layer of super complexity. But we got this.” DNS records also indicated that Cloudflare dropped its Daily Stormer protections, and the site was intermittently offline throughout Wednesday afternoon, seemingly due to DDoS attacks, which Auernheimer reported had plagued the site throughout the week.
Ultimately, The Daily Stormer itself appears to have pushed Cloudflare over the edge. “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,” said Prince in a blog post Wednesday night. “We could not remain neutral after these claims of secret support by Cloudflare.” Prince went on to describe in detail, though, why this decision creates a “dangerous” precedent, making it impossible for Cloudflare to say that it has never axed a customer for political reasons, and opening the door for groups like repressive governments to pressure the company to forsake other clients as well.
Tools to fight hate speech and trolling online do exist, and the tragedy in Charlottesville seems to have prompted companies to find new resolve to use them against white supremacy. But Cloudflare, once reliable in its non-response, makes a surprising addition to the group. Its action Wednesday may be a sort of bellwether that the internet community can no longer ignore questions around who moderates content, mediates disputes, and offers an ethical framework for the web. But the tough question remains: Whose job is that?