Was Cloudflare’s Termination of the Daily Stormer Ethical?

On August 16, 2017, Cloudflare revoked its cyber-protection service from the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website (Newman, 2017). The ethical issue at stake concerns internet censorship and who gets to decide what speech stays online. Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince decided to terminate the Daily Stormer’s account in his professional capacity. The action took place after the Daily Stormer published remarks disparaging Heather Heyer. A white supremacist had murdered Hayer at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier that month (deGrandpre, 2017). The Daily Stormer alleged that Cloudflare implicitly endorsed their cause by continuing to act as their shield. Announcing the decision to terminate, Prince articulated the issues he felt were at stake. They were, “Where do you regulate content on the internet. Vigilante justice. Increasing dependence on a few giant networks. Freedom of speech [is less than] due process” (Prince, 2017). Cloudflare was a member of a small group of entities that operates at the internet’s infrastructure level. The company’s service protects against a type of attack called Distributed Denial of Service, which can drive websites offline. Its protections are essential to the functioning of the internet. It believes making them available to all is morally correct (Johnson, 2018).

Following the termination of services, Prince expected that the Daily Stormer would be taken offline by vigilante hackers who objected to its speech. Prince expressed concern that the decision would set a new precedent. One of his employees asked, “Is this the day the Internet dies?” (Conger, 2017). Since the incident, the Daily Stormer has managed to stay online in one form or another by limping between service providers (X, 2018). However, the decision marked a significant change in Cloudflare’s policy. Prince had previously written about his support for free speech principles and Cloudflare’s commitment to allowing information to flow through its network without censorship (Prince, 2013). The company believed that the right thing to do was to remain neutral regarding content. It had never before terminated service on these grounds. Did Cloudflare ethically act when it made this exception to its position of neutrality?

Under the Utilitarianism framework, ethical decisions should be made based on what produces the greatest good for most people. It is the consequences of actions that matter. Everyone’s happiness has equal weight (Driver, 2014). To justify the effort on this basis, Prince would have needed to consider the affected stakeholders. The company had 1.5 million customers in 2017 (Newman, 2017), and 10% of all web page-requests across the globe routed through their services (Prince, 2017). In total, 3.8 billion people were online that year (Kemp, 2017). The spread of ideas can impact all people everywhere. Western traditions of political philosophy have long maintained that subjects benefit from having a voice in their sovereign’s rule (Runciman, 2020). The jury is out as to whether maximalist positions towards internet speech effectively advance those ideals.

But who was directly affected by this particular decision? The white nationalist scum running the site were the customers. Loyal readers, who sought out abhorrent racist and xenophobic propaganda, were the audience. Cloudflare’s neutrality benefits these groups, and its suspension harms them. They may lose their platform for expression and see their movement set back. Another group was casual readers who possibly did not yet possess deeply-held white supremacist beliefs. The action may diminish their risk of radicalization through exposure to hateful material. Most importantly, there existed innocent people who were the target of the Daily Stormer’s hate. This group benefited unambiguously from the suppression of the harmful ideology and the reduced threat of physical violence. There is another way to look at the issue that considers Cloudflare’s technology, which is continually improving as it learns from past threats. The company has argued that it gains experience to protect everyone by guarding controversial sites (Johnson, 2018). But with millions of other customers remaining on their platform, the termination of the Daily Stormer is by itself unlikely to endanger these network effects.

Under the Individual Rights approach to ethical decision making, choices should promote the individual’s own best interests over the long term. The method acknowledges each person’s agency to make choices for his-, her- or itself (Santa Clara University, 2015). Since its founding, Cloudflare has believed that maintaining a position firmly in support of free speech was advantageous because it strengthened the internet. But the company also recognized that its customers’ activities and its response expose it to political, business, and reputational consequences (Cloudflare Inc Form S-1 Registration Statement, 2019). These consequences impact their relationships with employees, suppliers, and other current and new customers. While many stakeholders would support the company’s decision, others would not. By framing it as a narrow exception to their usual policy, they pragmatically avoided taking a position at the extreme of either side of the issue. Prince may have seen this stance as the best option available at the time. The company’s public statements did not touch on whether or not they calculated this decision would be to their long-term advantage. But they were sufficiently pleased with the outcome to adopt a similar posture in 2019 when they revoked protection for the website 8Chan following the shooting in El Paso, Texas (Prince, 2019). The decision would prevent any further training of Cloudflare’s systems off these particular attacks, which is a loss for the company. But, again, given the extent of their network’s reach, forgoing one site’s data is unlikely to compromise their capabilities. Had the company determined that continuing to shield the Daily Stormer would have been in its best interest, the Individual Rights approach may have constrained it. Although the Daily Stormer stopped short of illegal calls to violence, their speech was hateful, and harming others is unethical. Considering the impact his decision would have on others, Prince weighed speech rights on the one hand against life and safety rights on the other. He sought a solution that would satisfy his conscience.

Under the Justice decision-making approach, ethical decisions should consider standards of equity, fairness, and impartiality. It addresses moral questions of what is owed by one person or group to another (Miller, 2017). Like most decisions made about the so-called Internet backbone, the judgment against the Daily Stormer did not involve the due process of law. The decision was arbitrary and capricious (Lee, 2017a). Prince stated that he just “woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet” (Conger, 2017). The decision did not encompass any other objectionable actors, not even other white supremacist sites. Stakeholders were not compensated in any way, regardless of their responsibility or injuries. Cloudflare did act within its legal rights and was empowered by its terms of service to terminate the account. In this sense, the company did apply the stated rules and procedures. However, the company behaved inconsistently by deviating from its norm of neutrality. Members of civil society, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, joined Prince in raising concerns about the precedent the decision would set (Malcolm, 2017). They contend that no one should conduct content moderation at the infrastructure level. They presume that no one should wield power to censor arbitrarily. They believe in resolving these kinds of questions using a framework of principles that considers necessity, proportionality, transparency, and accountability. And they support liability shields for intermediaries and judicial authority over take-downs (Manila Principles, n.d.).

Prince wishes for robust due-process and is wary of private organizations acting as law enforcement. But this situation does not present a question of law. A handful of large private companies govern the internet. When circumstances demand ethical decision making, it falls to company leaders to act responsibly. On balance, we conclude that Cloudflare’s decision to revoke protection from the Daily Stormer was ethical. Though it fails when analyzed using the Justice approach to ethical decision making, we can justify the action under Utilitarianism and the Individual Rights approach. For society to function, all individuals must abide by agreed-upon rules. Practicing tolerance does not include giving a free-pass to the intolerant.

The company announced its decision to employees that morning. In his email to staff, Prince stated that the company’s deeply-held values had not changed. He asked staff to allow him to be the first to make the announcement public (Conger, 2017). To reassure external stakeholders, Prince and other officers wrote publicly and spoke with the press about the incident. In 2018 they participated in a Wired magazine profile in an issue dedicated to free speech (Johnson, 2018). The attitudes held by industry participants and the general public on these issues are evolving. People today are reconsidering principles that were deeply-held by those of the internet’s founding generation. By engaging in public discussion, Cloudflare hopes to maintain its technical, financial, and moral leadership within the industry (Lee, 2017b). Time will tell if the company and its ilk are on the right side of history.

This piece was written for Dr. Indu Ramachandran’s class “Organizational Performance and Competitive Advantage,” at the McCoy College of Business Administration, Texas State University.

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Posted November 2020

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