Internet services company Cloudflare is going public, and it describes the controversy over banning hateful websites — like 8chan and the Daily Stormer — as a potential risk factor. The company’s S-1 filing reports that objectionable sites could cause “significant adverse political, business, and reputational consequences.”
The filing describes this risk as a double bind for Cloudflare because once an objectionable customer signs up, any moderation call will anger some people. The company “experienced significant negative publicity” for working with the neo-Nazi blog Daily Stormer and the forum 8chan, which it says “served as inspiration” for hate-fueled shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Christchurch, New Zealand. “We are aware of some potential customers that have indicated their decision to not subscribe to our products was impacted, at least in part, by the actions of certain of our paying and free customers,” the filing says.
Conversely, the form notes that banning websites can also “harm our brand and reputation.” Cloudflare typically avoids cutting off sites for objectionable content, but it banned the Daily Stormer in 2017 and cut off 8chan earlier this month. “We received significant adverse feedback for these decisions from those concerned about our ability to pass judgment on our customers and the users of our platform, or to censor them by limiting their access to our products, and we are aware of potential customers who decided not to subscribe to our products because of this,” says the filing.
Many companies have talked about moderation as a risk factor. Pinterest’s S-1 filing warned of potential damage from “hostile or inappropriate” users’ actions, for example, and Snapchat alluded to “media, legislative, and regulatory scrutiny of our decisions regarding user privacy or other issues.” Domain registrar GoDaddy warned that “our reputation and brand may be negatively impacted by the actions of customers that are deemed to be hostile, offensive or inappropriate.” But these filings don’t focus on specific incidents or websites the way Cloudflare’s does.
Cloudflare isn’t a social media platform, and it’s described the 8chan and Daily Stormer bans as exceptions to its usual neutrality. But it’s also expounded on some sweeping theories of what free speech should mean for an infrastructure provider. The filing offers some economic justification for this, suggesting that, right now, brushing off moderation and censorship questions is bad business.