Cloudflare, a prominent San Francisco outfit, provides services to neo-Nazi sites like The Daily Stormer, including giving them personal information on people who complain about their content.
by Ken Schwencke
ProPublica, May 4, 2017, 8 a.m.
Since its launch in 2013, the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer has quickly become the go-to spot for racists on the internet. Women are whores, blacks are inferior and a shadowy Jewish cabal is organizing a genocide against white people. The site can count among its readers Dylann Roof, the white teenager who slaughtered nine African Americans in Charleston in 2015, and James Jackson, who fatally stabbed an elderly black man with a sword in the streets of New York earlier this year.
Traffic is up lately, too, at white supremacist sites like The Right Stuff, Iron March, American Renaissance and Stormfront, one of the oldest white nationalist sites on the internet.The operations of such extreme sites are made possible, in part, by an otherwise very mainstream internet company — Cloudflare. Based in San Francisco, Cloudflare operates more than 100 data centers spread across the world, serving as a sort of middleman for websites — speeding up delivery of a site’s content and protecting it from several kinds of attacks. Cloudflare says that some 10 percent of web requests flow through its network, and the company’s mainstream clients range from the FBI to the dating site OKCupid.
The operations of such extreme sites are made possible, in part, by an otherwise very mainstream internet company — Cloudflare. Based in San Francisco, Cloudflare operates more than 100 data centers spread across the world, serving as a sort of middleman for websites — speeding up delivery of a site’s content and protecting it from several kinds of attacks. Cloudflare says that some 10 percent of web requests flow through its network, and the company’s mainstream clients range from the FBI to the dating site OKCupid.The widespread use of Cloudflare’s services by racist groups is not an accident. Cloudflare has said it is not in the business of censoring websites and will not deny its services to even the most offensive purveyors of hate.
The widespread use of Cloudflare’s services by racist groups is not an accident. Cloudflare has said it is not in the business of censoring websites and will not deny its services to even the most offensive purveyors of hate.“A website is speech. It is not a bomb,”
“A website is speech. It is not a bomb,”
Cloudflare’s CEO Matthew Prince wrote in a 2013 blog post defending his company’s stance. “There is no imminent danger it creates and no provider has an affirmative obligation to monitor and make determinations about the theoretically harmful nature of speech a site may contain.”
Cloudflare also has an added appeal to sites such as The Daily Stormer. It turns over to the hate sites the personal information of people who criticize their content. For instance, when a reader figures out that Cloudflare is the internet company serving sites like The Daily Stormer, they sometimes write to the company to protest. Cloudflare, per its policy, then relays the name and email address of the person complaining to the hate site, often to the surprise and regret of those complaining.
This has led to campaigns of harassment against those writing in to protest the offensive material. People have been threatened and harassed.
ProPublica reached out to a handful of people targeted by The Daily Stormer after they or someone close to them complained to Cloudflare about the site’s content. All but three declined to talk on the record, citing fear of further harassment or a desire to not relive it. Most said they had no idea their report would be passed on, though Cloudflare does state on the reporting form that they “will notify the site owner.”
“I wasn’t aware that my information would be sent on. I suppose I, naively, had an expectation of privacy,” said Jennifer Dalton, who had complained that The Daily Stormer was asking its readers to harass Twitter users after the election.
Andrew Anglin, the owner of The Daily Stormer, has been candid about how he feels about people reporting his site for its content.
“We need to make it clear to all of these people that there are consequences for messing with us,” Anglin wrote in one online post. “We are not a bunch of babies to be kicked around. We will take revenge. And we will do it now.”
ProPublica asked Cloudflare’s top lawyer about its policy of sharing information on those who complain about racist sites. The lawyer, Doug Kramer, Cloudflare’s general counsel, defended the company’s policies by saying it is “base constitutional law that people can face their accusers.” Kramer suggested that some of the people attackingCloudflare’s customers had their own questionable motives.
Hate sites such as The Daily Stormer have become a focus of intense interest since the racially divisive 2016 election — how popular they are, who supports them, how they are financed. Most of their operators supported Donald Trump and helped spread a variety of conspiracy theories aimed at damaging Hillary Clinton. But they clearly have also become a renewed source of concern for law enforcement.
In testimony Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chief Will D. Johnson, chair of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Human and Civil Rights Committee, highlighted the reach and threat of hate on the Internet.
“The internet provides extremists with an unprecedented ability to spread hate and recruit followers,” he said. “Individual racists and organized hate groups now have the power to reach a global audience of millions and to communicate among like-minded individuals easily, inexpensively, and anonymously.
“Although hate speech is offensive and hurtful, the First Amendment usually protects such expression,” Johnson said. “However, there is a growing trend to use the Internet to intimidate and harass individuals on the basis of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, disability, or national origin.”
A look at Cloudflare’s policies and operations sheds some light on how sites promoting incendiary speech and even violent behavior can exist and even thrive.
Jacob Sommer, a lawyer with extensive experience in internet privacy and security issues, said there is no legal requirement for a company like Cloudflare to regulate the sites on their service, though many internet service providers choose to. It comes down to a company’s sense of corporate responsibility, he said.
For the most part, Sommers said, a lot of companies don’t want “this stuff” on their networks. He said those companies resist having their networks become “a hive of hate speech.”
Jonathan Vick, associate director for investigative technology and cyberhate response at the Anti-Defamation League, agrees. He said that many of the hosts they talk to want to get hate sites off their networks.
“Even the most intransigent of them, when they’re given evidence of something really problematic, they do respond,” he said.
Cloudflarehas raised at least $180 million in venture capital since its inception in 2009, much of it from some of the most prominent venture capital firms and tech companies in the country. The service is what’s known as a content delivery network, and offers protection from several cyber threats including “denial of service” attacks, where hundreds of computers make requests to a website at once, overwhelming it and bringing it down.
Company officials have said Cloudflare’s core belief is in the free and open nature of the internet. But given its outsize role in protecting a range of websites, Cloudflare has found itself the target of critics.
In 2015, the company came under fire from the hacker collective Anonymous for reportedly allowing ISIS propaganda sites on its network. At the time, Prince, the company’s CEO, dismissed the claim as “armchair analysis by kids,” and told Fox Business that the company would not knowingly accept money from a terrorist organization.
Kramer, in an interview with ProPublica, reiterated that the company would not accept money from ISIS. But he said that was not for moral or ethical reasons. Rather, he said, Cloudflare did not have dealings with terrorists groups such as ISIS because there are significant and specific laws restricting them from doing so.
In the end, Kramer said, seedy and objectionable sites made up a tiny fraction of the company’s clients.
“We’ve got 6 million customers,” he told ProPublica. “It’s easy to find these edge cases.”
One of the people ProPublica spoke with whose information had been shared with The Daily Stormer’s operators said his complaint had been posted on the site, but that he was “not interested in talking about my experience as it’s not something I want to revisit.” Someone else whose information was posted on the site said that while she did get a few odd emails, she wasn’t aware her information had been made public. She followed up to say she was going to abandon her email account now that she knew….