Far Right Website Sparks Free Speech Debate

John Lister's picture

A company that protects websites from online attacks has stopped serving a far right website. But the man who made the decision says he feels uneasy about making such decisions.

Cloudflare is designed to protect against denial of service attacks, in which people try to bring down a website by flooding it with bogus requests until it's inaccessible to legitimate traffic by real people. It's a tactic often used by hacker groups protesting against the organizations running the site, though it's also been used as a form of cyberwarfare.

To combat such attacks, data going to and from the websites of Cloudflare customers is routed via Cloudflare's own server. This routing is controlled not only to optimize the speed for legitimate site visitors, but also to recognize and block attacks. Cloudflare also caches copies of the customer site so that it can provide these copies even if the site itself is unreachable for any reason.

Site Attacks Charlottesville Victim

An estimated 10 percent of all web traffic goes via Cloudflare, which covers a wide range of sites. Until recently, this included Daily Stormer, a site that contains white supremacist content. Last week the site printed disparaging material about Heather Heyer, the woman who protested against a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and was killed when a car drove into the crowd. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

That material prompted several sites to stop providing services to Daily Stormer. Both GoDaddy and Google cancelled their registration services for the site's website address, meaning visitors had to type in the IP address (a string of numbers identifying the computer hosting the site content) instead.

Cloudflare initially continued serving Daily Stormer, a move it says was based on the principle of supporting the right to free speech. It's chief Matthew Prince says "Like a lot of people, we've felt angry at these hateful people for a long time, but we have followed the law and remained content neutral as a network." (Source: cloudflare.com)

Boss Personally Conflicted

Prince later discovered that Daily Stormer staff had made claims that Cloudflare had kept serving the site because it secretly supported the extreme right wing ideology. That led to Prince banning Daily Stormer from using the Cloudflare service. The removal of the protection means opponents of Daily Stormer have been able to make it virtually unreachable.

While many have congratulated Prince, he says he's extremely uneasy about making the decision, despite personally considering the site as "vile". He says that the threat of denial-of-service attacks (and the lack of rivals to Cloudflare) mean that in effect he is able to decide whether a controversial website is able to be viewed, which makes him uncomfortable.

He also says that his decision breached his own point of principle, and means it could be harder to fight demands from aggressive governments to take down material such as pages voicing political opposition or exposing corruption.

What's Your Opinion?

Was Cloudflare right to stop serving Daily Stormer? Where should web companies draw the line between giving everyone a voice and not enabling the distribution of extreme views and material? Is it concerning that a private company has so much effective control over which sites are reachable?

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Dennis Faas's picture

There is a huge difference between hate speech vs. free speech. That said, having to be the person responsible for determining this based on "political correctness" is a fine line. There needs to be a set of rules put in place to correctly label hate speech, which can be used to take down offending sites. Since each company has its own set of policies, there would have to be a law to enforce the guidelines. Any site not complying should be fined. Of course, policing this would be difficult at best.

dan400man's picture

The people behind Daily Stormer are despicable scum, and they should return to their caves. That said, who will decide what is hate speech? This is an extremely dangerous slippery slope.

We are witnessing on college campuses all across the U.S. where conservative voices are effectively stopped from being heard, all because liberal snowflakes label anything that doesn't fit their worldview as hateful.

Wasn't Google considering utilizing Snopes.com as an arbiter of "fake" news sites? Holy crap.

couchmt_4698's picture

This was a Neo-Nazi website and given the Nazi's history, I can't see how what they put out could be considered anything but hate speech. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, for example, the White House issued a statement that did not mention the Jewish people. “This is the first time in history the President of the United States has made no mention of Jews, anti-Semitism, or the science fiction Zionist folklore about ovens and gas chambers so prominent in (((Hollywood))) narratives,” the Daily Stormer, which, incidentally is named after a Nazi propaganda tabloid, wrote.

Nazi's killed millions during the holocaust, and the Daily Stormer called it "science fiction"?

The line here, as I see it, is not fine at all.

rwells78's picture

OK, I'll take the opposite view.

By definition "free speech" is often unpopular speech and hate speech by definition is unpopular. So how can we regulate "hate speech" if we claim to allow and support free speech??

The cure for "hate speech" is large amounts of opposite view free speech which drowns out their hateful and illogical views. I suppose that some would argue that a DOS attack is drowning out their speech, but it fails to convince anyone of the wrongness of that viewpoint, it just forces the speech to use another venue to be heard.

I, of course, do NOT support these Nazi scum as my father fought against them in WW2 and spent significant time in a German POW camp, so don't go there! But I do oppose the government and the host of the modern public square (internet, Facebook, Twitter) choosing to censor the view that they call hate speech.

doctordemando's picture

I can see why Prince would be uneasy, 'hate' is a very nebulous and subjective category as we see daily in the media. Free speech is easy to infringe if all you have to do is label it 'hate' based on your personal bias.

That said, I think it is very appropriate to cancel the supremacist site when they crossed the line: claiming their freedom as evidence that Cloudflare supported their agenda. I would do the same.

dan400man's picture

Yeah, see, that's exactly why I support Cloudflare's response. In effect, the hate group libeled / slandered Cloudflare. If Cloudflare doesn't have something in their contract that says the customer cannot imply any support of Cloudflare by use of their service, they probably should.

LouisianaJoe's picture

This can be a slippery slope. Godaddy and google are actively suppressing conservative sites. First they will suppress you for what you say that they do not like. Then they will suppress you for what you fail to say like the media does to Trump now.

kitekrazy's picture

We don't need anymore government interference. Why open Pandora's box? Hate can be a vague word. Hate crimes are unconstitutional and where will it go with "hate speech"?
The net is one thing the government hasn't really got its hands on. Why throw them a rope?

gmthomas44_4203's picture

Who is the arbiter? Who is on the committee to decide? Ever heard the quote, "First they came for...."? Are YOU next?

dan400man's picture


guitardogg's picture

The classic question in the "free speech" arena, "Is it okay to yell fire in a crowded theater?". You have the right to say what you want, but it is okay when it literally hurts people (getting trampled while trying to escape a non-existent fire)? I say they have a right to say what ever horrible hate spreading lies they wish. But Google, GoDaddy, and Cloudflare have the right to not provide them services, under the same umbrella of "free speech"!