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How Cloudflare straddles its role as privacy champion and hate speech enabler

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When it comes to the debate over online content, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Comcast, and Verizon get a lot more attention than Cloudflare. But the San Francisco-based content delivery network and cloud security provider is growing fast and gaining notoriety for a nearly absolutist free-speech ethos that benefits everyone from human rights activists to white-power and Islamist hate groups.

What is Cloudflare? On an existential level, that question is central to the debate about its responsibilities online. In technical terms, it competes with companies such as Akamai by helping millions of websites negotiate the freewheeling internet, routing the sites’ traffic through a network of 165 data centers in 76 countries, to deliver it faster. Cloudflare also shields clients from attacks, such as the data-packet onslaught called a distributed denial of service (DDoS).

Cloudflare claims to support over 12 million web domains, including companies like Zendesk and Udacity, government agencies like the Library of Congress–and a handful of vitriol-spewing sites like The Nation of Islam and the Westboro Baptist Church (at the URL godhatesfags.com).

As a result, it’s incurred the wrath of hate speech watchdogs like the Anti Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). When it stopped serving the white supremacist, harassment-inciting Daily Stormer in August 2017–the single client Cloudflare says it has ever dropped due to “political pressure”–it framed the move as a cautionary tale that it hopes to never repeat.

“Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the internet. No one should have that power,” CEO Matthew Prince wrote in an email to staff.

Cloudflare’s philosophy-quoting CEO Matthew Prince holds firm on not censoring speech, no matter how repulsive he personally finds it. [Photo: courtesy of Cloudflare]Eighteen months later, amid increasing pressure to clamp down on toxic online content, with even U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announcing a new initiative to combat hate speech around the globe, Prince and general counsel Doug Kramer doubled down on their free-speech ethos in a wide-ranging discussion with Fast Company.

“If you do believe–as we do–that the edge of the internet of the future gets controlled by about 10 companies,” says Prince. “If those 10 companies start to impose the values of their leadership on what the internet looks like, I just think that that’s an incredibly risky thing to be doing.”

Cloudflare (which Fast Company named a most innovative company in 2012, 2018, and 2019) does have a shot at joining that group of 10. Launched in 2010, it reports serving nearly 10% of global internet requests. And it’s rumored to be prepping for a $3.5 billion IPO. (Cloudflare declined to comment on any plans to go public.)

The big debate is over where Cloudflare sits amid all the “layers” of the internet. If it’s down at the bottom, along with undersea cables and internet service providers, it arguably has a duty to keep the web free by allowing all the bits to flow. If it’s considered a content host or provider–more like YouTube or Facebook–there is a stronger but still contentious argument to make that it bears some responsibility for the effect that such content has on society.

Given Cloudflare’s growing market power and outspoken leadership, it’s a powerful test case amid the ongoing debate over the responsibilities of tech giants for the content to which they provide a platform. It could set a precedent for the “de-platforming” battles that follow.

One thing both sides agree on is that Cloudflare has worked hard to make its case to the world. “I think they definitely have been more visible,” says Keegan Hankes, senior research analyst at the SPLC. “I went to [international tech and human rights conference] RightsCon last........

© Fast Company