Cloudflare must stop being the 'service of choice' for bad internet actors
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I read with great interest that Cloudflare recently filed paperwork in pursuit of an IPO. No, I’m not hoping to invest my 401(k) in their stock. Rather, I am hopeful that the IPO may lead Cloudflare to step up to the responsibilities of a public company and refuse to provide their services to entities involved in illegal activities. If they will not, potential investors in Cloudflare may be in for a rude awakening when they learn of the kinds of activities Cloudflare facilitates.

Cloudflare is not a household name, but anyone steeped in the internet knows them well. They provide, among other products, a “reverse proxy” service that masks the true IP address of websites, making websites more like ghosts; no one, including law enforcement, will be able to reach them directly unless they want to be reached.

The problem with Cloudflare is not what they do, but the fact that they proudly offer their services to all willing to pay – regardless of whether they are legitimate organizations or notorious criminals involved in trafficking, drug dealing, radicalization, or other nefarious activities. This willful blindness to their customers’ activities has made Cloudflare the “service of choice” for bad actors looking to cloak their identity.

Cloudflare was in the news in connection with the deadly shootings in El Paso and in Christchurch, New Zealand. One of Cloudflare’s clients was 8chan – an online message board home to the radicalization of both the El Paso shooter and the one at Christchurch. Without the support of Cloudflare or entities like it, 8chan would have difficulty spewing their hate, as they could not operate safely behind the shield that Cloudflare provides.

It is true that Cloudflare “fired” 8Chan and no longer provides the site with protection, and they did the same for The Daily Stormer – the website used to provoke the violence in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

But, why must they wait for a tragedy, or a national news story, to stop working with these websites? Additionally, it’s not like 8chan and The Daily Stormer were a couple of bad apples that slipped by Cloudflare’s net – at least seven terrorist organizations and other entities well-known for engaging in illegal activities use Cloudflare’s services.

In a recent blog, Cloudflare’s CEO Matthew Prince explained his decision to end their relationship with 8Chan but also said that they “continue to feel incredibly uncomfortable about playing the role of content arbiter and do not plan to exercise it often.” While it may be complicated to decide which websites are spouting hate speech, it is abundantly clear which websites are dedicated to obvious illegal activities.

Moreover, Cloudflare is not a public utility, obligated to serve anyone willing to pay for its services. Like any company, it has an obligation to “know their customer.” If that customer is obviously taking part in plainly illegal activity – whether that be terrorism, child trafficking, or copyright infringement – Cloudflare should refuse to service them, just as it belatedly refused to service 8chan and The Daily Stormer.

Courts have begun to reject Cloudflare’s claims that its clients’ activities are none of their business. For example, a court in Italy recently ordered Cloudflare to terminate the accounts of pirate websites. And a court in California recently denied Cloudflare’s motion to throw out a lawsuit regarding its refusal to terminate the accounts of “repeat copyright infringers,” ordering that the suit should proceed to a hearing on the merits.

It is not enough for Cloudflare to take action after it’s tragically too late. Cloudflare should have, and enforce, a policy that rejectsorganizations engaging in clearly illegal activities. Period.

Cloudflare’s own employees seem to recognize that facilitating the behavior of criminal organizations does not make them “internet freedom heroes.” As one employee put it, “There were a lot of people who were like, ‘I came to this company because I wanted to help build a better internet ... but there are some really awful things currently on the web, and it’s because of us that they’re up there.’”

“Know your customer” is a fundamental principle for every responsible company. Cloudflare should be no exception.

Ruth Vitale is the CEO of CreativeFuture, a nonprofit coalition of over 550 companies and organizations and more than 240,000 individuals devoted to promoting the value of creativity in the digital age. She has held top posts at Paramount Classics, Fine Line Features, and New Line Cinema.