Who controls what we say?
However much I wanted to be there, I was not. I wanted to be standing in solidarity, in counter-protest of the hateful speech, and backward thinking of the white nationalists and neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia. I, like much of the nation, was glued to my television, and to the rapid-fire news notifications as they streamed onto my phone. What was going to happen next in Charlottesville?
While what happened was hardly unique, it was a shock to our system. Epithets on signs, Nazi flags, beatings, and a murder. How is this happening? The answer, it’s been happening for hundreds of years, this time we had a ringside seat.
Angry. Anger, sadness, and fear was what I felt as I watched it. Paralyzed by all of it. Unable to do anything more than re-tweeting the latest event, commenting on the comments of others, wanting to do something, being unable to do anything.
This is nothing new for those of color, and minorities in the United States. They don’t need me to remind them how paralyzing and exhausting it is to be abused, indeed, I’ve never been abused. It is discomforting to even speak about the events there in Virginia, the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and since the pilgrims landed here at Plymouth Rock. Fact is, we are a nation of violence for our own ends, there is hardly any way to argue around that. What we have, we’ve taken from others, even our freedoms — it is for others to argue the validity of the outcomes. It is up to all of us to make the best of those outcomes.
The one thing that has made that fact feel less like an atrocity, is The Idea. The idea of America: Land of the Free, Home of the Brave…? That shining city on the hill.
We champion the rights of the persecuted (when we’re not the perpetrators of that persecution), we champion the right to speak our minds, at anytime, to anyone, without fear of retribution. We champion the right to gather together and do it loudly.
In the recent political climate, membership of the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) has flourished. Those worried that their voices may be quieted by the hand of the executive branch, looking, panicked for someone to stand up for their right to speak their minds to power.
After the events in Charlottesville, the A.C.L.U. took an unpopular position in defense of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis’ right to speak. That statement drew anger, and outrage from the ranks of their membership, both old and new. No matter how disliked, or unsettling the voice, we must stay true to our values, to our Idea of America and allow them to speak. Whether it is in writing, whether it is protest, everyone in America must be allowed to speak. Everyone.
It is true, however, a common misconception of this right granted to us by the First Amendment of the Constitution is that anyone can say anything, anywhere, anytime. In reality, this constitutional right extends only to our freedom not to be squelched by the government. Your employer can terminate you for statements you make on social media and otherwise, indeed social media platforms, and the owners of the companies — yes, the companies — that make up social media can put their hand over your mouth.
Cheers went up among the politically progressive audience when GoDaddy summarily ended their hosting deal with the white supremacist website Daily Stormer. The Daily Stormer moved to Google Hosting who quickly followed suit in the name of a violation of terms of service. Mark Zuckerberg too, announced that Facebook was monitoring the platform and taking down posts that violate the same.
I was one of those cheering on the hosting companies for their actions, “quiet the racists!” It was a coup against hate! It was a coup.
Because the information age has come upon us like the tsunami that it is, happening in just a few decades, and in bulk, overwhelming us in just the last decade and a half, our slow human brains, and moreover, our society, both in ideology, and in laws have not yet caught up to the situation in which we find ourselves.
My moment of pause came when I read the letter from Matthew Prince, the Chief Executive Officer of Cloudflare. Cloudflare is a content delivery network, or CDN. If you use the Internet, you use CDNs everyday and probably don’t even notice. That’s why CDNs exist. Without continuing off on a technical tangent, they make websites faster to load and use by hosting bits and pieces of them closer to your computer on the Internet. If they don’t provide the service, many large websites just don’t work.
Here is the full text of Prince’s letter —
Earlier today Cloudflare terminated the account of the Daily Stormer. We’ve stopped proxying their traffic and stopped answering DNS requests for their sites. We’ve taken measures to ensure that they cannot sign up for Cloudflare’s services again.
This was my decision. Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion. My rationale for making this decision was simple: the people behind the Daily Stormer are assholes and I’d had enough.
Let me be clear: this was an arbitrary decision. It was different than what I’d talked talked with our senior team about yesterday. I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet. I called our legal team and told them what we were going to do. I called our Trust & Safety team and had them stop the service. It was a decision I could make because I’m the CEO of a major Internet infrastructure company.
Having made that decision we now need to talk about why it is so dangerous. I’ll be posting something on our blog later today. Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.
[Cloudflare employee’s name redacted] asked after I told him what we were going to do: “Is this the day the Internet dies?” He was half joking, but I actually think it’s an important question. It’s important that what we did today not set a precedent. The right answer is for us to be consistently content neutral. But we need to have a conversation about who and how the content online is controlled. We couldn’t have that conversation while the Daily Stormer site was using us. Now, hopefully, we can.
I’ll be publishing a blog post with all our thoughts on this issue in a few hours. Until then, I’d ask that you not talk about this externally.
Co-founder & CEO
We should all be very thankful that Matthew Prince is experiencing this cognitive dissonance, and we should all be having a strong case of it as well. The idea that someone can, literally, as he writes, wake up in a “bad mood” and silence a voice so quickly, and with such finality, with quite literally no check and balance, he continues, “no one should have that power.”
He’s dead right.
Next time it might not be the Daily Stormer — an easy target to pick on, it might be the A.C.L.U., or the Republican National Committee.
Do companies like CloudFlare possess information monopolies?
We have laws in this country to prevent monopolies from dominating their industries, and taking advantage of customers, or disadvantaging customers. Think railroads and steel, in the early 20th century, “Ma Bell” AT&T’s forced break-up, Microsoft, and regulations the FCC places on media conglomerates so that they cannot control too many television and news markets.
Now, we have companies like Google, Facebook, and indeed Cloudflare, that can effectively “turn off” someone they think is an “asshole.”
Is this American?
Sure, if you’re violating laws aimed at the prevention of violence you need be stopped, but who decides what is inciting violence, and what is just abominable speech? Can the President call a sympathetic CEO and ask that CEO to do the administration a favor and shutdown a website? Corporate terms of service allow for a lot of leeway, and our current set of laws allow for even more.
We need to have a conversation about information and who controls it, and, should it be controlled? What actions are protection from impending violence, and what is legalized censorship of words that someone in power just doesn’t like? Who should have the final say?
The country is raw from the events in Charlottesville, and the timing for this discussion may be poor. But, this discussion is required, and soon. We must not become complacent. A discussion of speech both tasteful and not, amongst and within ourselves, between CEOs of major companies, and our political institutions, even if that discussion results in repulsive speech we don’t wish to hear.
America, with all of it’s faults, and there are many, can still be a bright beacon in the world for free speech, as long as we fight like hell to keep that right which we all hold so dear, but perhaps all take for granted.