Censorship by Subtraction

Last year I wrote a post about using Cloudflare in this blog. Things were going well until recently when I encountered a problem uploading images larger than 1 MB. A typical photo from my cameras is about 2-3 MB in size, so this meant I would have to reduce all my pics in size to get them to load into my blog.

After about a week of back and forth – first with my Web provider, and then with Cloudflare tech support, the root cause was identified and fixed. Everything is OK now. But that isn’t the real subject of this post.

This is a tiny non-commercial blog mainly of interest to family and friends. As such, it probably doesn’t need to use Cloudflare at all. However, Cloudflare keeps copies of my posts on its servers worldwide, so the site loads faster than it would otherwise. I think it’s worth the effort to set up. Besides, Cloudflare is free for small fry like me.

This site is pretty non-controversial so I don’t expect that anyone would come after me with a bot army to knock it offline. It might be different if I had a major commercial or political website – in that case, Cloudflare offers additional protection against so-called Denial of Service attacks. That is the real reason their services exist.

And to go further, what if this site advocated racism, misogyny or other anti-social behavior? Well, in theory, Cloudflare could protect this site from DoS attacks – much as security protects political figures from attack at rallies.

The question a lot of folks on the Internet would ask is – should Cloudflare do that? In fact, the company has kicked only one client off their service – a virulent neo-Nazi site. That was after this black hat site had been dumped by its web provider and deleted from most social media sites as well.

There were plenty of hackers out there ready to blitz the fascists as soon as Cloudflare dropped them. So in a way, Cloudflare was acting as a Web censor by subtracting their services from the bad guy. Their terms of service give them a perfect right to do that. Some may say this is a good thing.

And yet..the CEO of Cloudflare believes that his company has immense power to say who can be on the Internet or not – simply by refusing to protect a site from attack. He also believes that having this sort of power is dangerous, and it should be used as sparingly as possible. Much as I have little sympathy for sites such as Daily Stormer, I agree.

It took weeks of internal debate – and a statement by the neo-Nazis that there were people at Cloudflare that sympathized with them – before the CEO made the decision to pull the plug and let the Net vigilantes do their work. Even then, he’s not convinced that any one person or Internet company should have the power to zap something he finds objectionable. I sure would not want to be the CEO of Cloudflare.


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