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Internet Company That Does Business With Hate Sites Alters Complaint Policies

Cloudflare, a major content delivery company, responds to concerns about the safety of those who object to disturbing material on the web.

Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince has written that service providers do not have “an affirmative obligation to monitor and make determinations about” the content of sites on its network. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Cloudflare, a major content delivery network that has a variety of white supremacist websites as clients, has said it will change its policies to allow people to more safely lodge complaints about the material on the hate sites.

Cloudflare’s announcement comes on the heels of a ProPublica article detailing the company’s dealings with sites such as The Daily Stormer, a virulently racist neo-Nazi operation whose owner has promised to strike back at critics. The article revealed that Cloudflare’s standard arrangement with clients included passing along personal information of people who had complained to the company about The Daily Stormer and other sites.

In an interview, Cloudflare’s CEO, Matthew Prince, said the company would soon permit people in certain instances to complain anonymously and would be more selective in its decisions to share with its clients the personal information — names and email addresses, for instance — of people who reported objections.

“We have to have ways for people to report that abuse and not have people feel they are being bullied or threatened,” he said.

Cloudflare, based in San Francisco, 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.

In the interview this week, Prince said Cloudflare would continue to have the racist sites as paying customers. Prince said Cloudflare does not regulate content and will not bar a customer unless they are determined to be a technical threat — like a site serving malware — or if his company is served with a court order.

“Whenever you have a private organization which is making what are essentially law enforcement decisions, that is a risk to due process. And I think due process is important,” Prince said.

Prince said the company’s amended policy to allow anonymous complaints would for now involve people reporting violent threats or child pornography. He said it was unclear at the moment if he would extend that protection to those reporting abuse generally, which is how the complaints ProPublica reported on were filed. Those complaints were filed in response to white supremacist content that called for urging people to commit suicide and an array of racist and anti-Semitic content.

In one online post, Andrew Anglin, the owner of The Daily Stormer, said of those reporting his site, “We need to make it clear to all of these people that there are consequences for messing with us. We are not a bunch of babies to be kicked around. We will take revenge. And we will do it now.”

ProPublica’s article last week included accounts from people who had been harassed after filing complaints with Cloudflare. Those people said they had been unaware it was standard policy for Cloudflare to share their information with the sites being complained about.

In the interview this week, Prince blamed some of those outcomes on the companies hosting the hate sites. He said the hosts in some cases had actually been the ones forwarding people’s names and emails to the sites’ owners.

“What we did not anticipate is that the hosts themselves couldn’t be trusted with this information,” he said.

Prince said the company — which has at least 6 million clients — internally tracks clients that cause concern. According to Prince, it does that so Cloudflare can donate money to organizations that battle those groups. He said the company donates the fees paid by sites such as The Daily Stormer.

“We track customers that we’re aware of that were flagged by our team — we know how much they have paid us and we know what the team decides is the right place to redirect those funds,” he said.

He would not say exactly how much or which organizations the company donates the money to, but said it has been hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past four or five years.

The fact that Cloudflare has so many clients that employees note as objectionable is a result of its policies on censorship. With the exception of technical threats like phishing and malware — where the company takes action and throws up a warning to someone visiting a harmful page — Cloudflare usually requires a court order to reject a client.

Prince has frequently talked about his company’s commitment to free speech, but acknowledged he does not have to have such lax policies.

“We are a private company. And so we’re not bound by the First Amendment. We don’t have to let everyone use our network,” he said.

Some internet companies that either serve or host content do restrict the kinds of sites they work with.

Prince said he does not fault companies who do restrict content, nor does he believe they are censoring the internet, saying they “can make whatever determination they want” with the platforms they create.

ProPublica’s article last week provoked criticism directed at Cloudflare. Some people said on Twitter that they had decided to stop doing business with Cloudflare. Others simply registered their dismay online.

“Cloudflare has no obligation to enable a site like The Daily Stormer. That site can exist without Cloudflare. Most sites do,” wrote one commenter on ProPublica’s story.

According to Prince, this hands-off policy is in part because he is concerned about the influence of personal opinions in an era where control of the internet itself rests in fewer hands.

“And when those companies make determinations they extend beyond being merely private companies, and they need to be very cognizant and thoughtful of the level of power and control that they have,” he said.

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