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Why banning hate sites is so hard

After last weekend’s mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, companies are struggling again with the problem of supporting sites associated with white supremacy. In this case, it’s the forum 8chan, where the killer apparently posted a racist rant justifying his attack. Cloudflare terminated its relationship with 8chan, and when the site began working with competitor Epik, web services company Voxility also banned Epik from renting server space.

Cloudflare also emphasized that 8chan likely isn’t going anywhere. Keeping a website online can be a delicate business; there are lots of ways to make a domain temporarily inaccessible or stop it from making money. In the long term, however, keeping a site completely offline can be harder. That’s one of the web’s major virtues. As Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore once put it, “the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” But it means that sites like 8chan or the neo-Nazi blog Daily Stormer can find new homes even after being widely condemned and dropped by numerous service providers.

Meanwhile, some companies are protesting their role as de facto online gatekeepers. Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince called it “dangerous” for infrastructure providers to be put in charge of editorial decisions. “Questions around content are real societal issues that need politically legitimate solutions,” he wrote.

But Prince suggested that, right now, the law may not even be equipped to deal with these questions. “Where platforms have been designed to be lawless and unmoderated, and where the platforms have demonstrated their ability to cause real harm, the law may need additional remedies.” Government institutions are failing to respond to online radicalization and domestic terrorism — so for people who want to fight hate, companies like Cloudflare can seem like the only solution.