As critics questioned how 8chan remained readily accessible even after being so directly linked to a string of horrific violence, their gaze settled on Cloudflare. One of the services Cloudflare provides is protection against cyberattacks; without such protection, vigilantes can target sites and effectively take them offline. Why was Cloudflare standing in their way? The negligible revenue from one of millions of customers seemed hardly worth the headache. But Prince said he felt a “moral obligation” to keep 8chan on Cloudflare’s network, in part to help law enforcement monitor the message board’s activity, and in part because he worried about the precedent it could set. As Cloudflare’s general counsel put it on Sunday, the company did not want to be in the business of evaluating content; it saw itself as “largely a neutral utility service.”
Then later in the day, the company reversed course. In a blog post, Prince said, “The rationale is simple: [People at 8chan] have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths.” It’s true that 8chan is “designed to be lawless and unmoderated,” as Prince put it. Even on Sunday, as police worked to verify its connection to the El Paso shooting, it still defiantly welcomed readers to the “Darkest Reaches of the Internet.” But as Prince insisted 8chan was an easy case because it is “uniquely lawless,” he also wrestled with an uncomfortable truth: His decision was lawless too.
Traditionally, the rule of law is associated with constraining governments. It reflects the idea that the exercise of power over fundamental rights should not be arbitrary. The rule of law is achieved in part by having procedural protections that make decisions transparent, consistent, predictable, and fundamentally accountable.
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Prince’s decision was anything but. After a weekend of publicly insisting he had a moral obligation to keep serving 8chan, he could suddenly, unilaterally, and arbitrarily pull Cloudflare’s services. Prince, of course, is not a government official. He did not order police into a public square to arrest a speaker with whom he disagreed. Yet as the internet becomes the primary forum for free expression, power over who gets a platform to speak is more and more falling to private companies like his. And they exercise this power with none of the traditional protections that should accompany decisions of such public consequence. When Prince thoughtfully details what’s wrong with this situation, his legal training shows. So does the fact that he’s been in the same uncomfortable position before.
Two years ago, almost exactly to the day, Cloudflare terminated the account of the Daily Stormer, another online petri dish of violent extremism. Back then, the final straw was an article celebrating the murder of Heather Heyer in the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Far from trying to rationalize the decision, Prince wrote to employees, “Let me be clear: this was an arbitrary decision … Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.” He was being deliberately provocative. Prince told Recode that he was frustrated at the paucity of public debate about who should be making editorial decisions on the internet and wanted to force more conversation about the issue. During moments of controversy, high-profile companies such as Facebook and YouTube typically defend their own decision making in blog posts that explain, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, how what they did conformed with their platform rules. Prince did nothing of the sort. Embracing the storm, he called his own decision “dangerous.”