8chan, the online forum where perpetrators of mass shootings have been known to post their hate-filled “manifestos,” has been experiencing outages after Cloudflare, the shield that protects many websites from concerted cyberattacks, decided to kick the site off its services.
The decision came after the man who killed 20 people, several of them immigrants, in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 3. Less than 20 minutes before the police started receiving phone calls about the shooting, he posted his racist four-page screed on 8chan, according to CNN.
8chan went offline at 3am US Eastern time on Monday, and it announced on Twitter that there might be “downtime” for the subsequent two days as the platform finds a solution. As of 11am on Monday, the website is back online. El Paso is the third mass shooting in the last several months, after the tragedies in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Poway, California, where the perpetrators used the platform to spread their message.
But Cloudflare decided only now to stop protecting the platform. It’s only made a similar decision once before, after the deadly Charlottesville rally in 2017, when it stopped providing its services to the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer.
That’s because the company has a general policy of non-intervention, as Quartz reported at the time. It does not want to serve as an arbiter of online content, unlike platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince said in a blog post explaining the 8chan decision that his service is a “conduit” that is not visible to users “and therefore cannot be transparent and consistent about [its] policies.” He added that many of its customers run their platforms on top of Cloudflare’s network. “If our policies are more conservative than theirs it effectively undercuts their ability to run their services and set their own policies.”
There are more than 18 million internet properties on Cloudflare, according to the company, and it “powers Internet requests for ~10% of the Fortune 1,000 for more than 1 billion unique IP addresses per day.”
What does Cloudflare do?
Cloudflare is one of many services online that help keep the internet running. Here’s how Quartz previously explained how important services like Cloudflare’s are to the internet:
Without its shield, many websites—belonging to groups right across the political spectrum as well as companies and government agencies—would be frequently crippled by distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, in which attackers flood a site’s servers with spurious traffic. In DDoS attacks, might is right: Only a few companies like Cloudflare have enough servers to soak up a concerted assault.
So, why did Cloudflare step in in the case of 8chan, and the El Paso shooting? Prince explained that 8chan:
[H]ave proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths. Even if 8chan may not have violated the letter of the law in refusing to moderate their hate-filled community, they have created an environment that revels in violating its spirit.
He added that the company “reluctantly tolerates” content if finds reprehensible, but it draws the line at platforms that inspire tragic events and are “lawless by design.”
Prince says that he does not believe the decision will help much with curbing online content. The Daily Stormer came back online, after it went to different service providers. 8chan’s administrators said it would be moving to BitMitigate, the same service used by The Daily Stormer, according to the BBC.
“While removing 8chan from our network takes heat off of us, it does nothing to address why hateful sites fester online,” Prince said.
And Prince underlined that the company continues to feel “incredibly uncomfortable about playing the role of content arbiter and do not plan to exercise it often.” Indeed, Gizmodo found in July that Cloudflare works with 56 groups that propagate online hate.