The Industry

Almost No One Can Stop 8chan. So Cloudflare Is.

The company hasn’t cut off a website for incubating hate since the deadly rally in Charlottesville.

People hold up their phones during a vigil.
A vigil in El Paso, Texas, on Sunday.
Mark Ralston/Getty Images

Cloudflare is one of the backbones of the internet, a web security and infrastructure company that helps more than 12 million websites function. As of midnight PST Monday, 8chan won’t be one of them.

On Sunday evening, Cloudflare said it planned to pull its service from the notorious image board, a move that could leave 8chan vulnerable to attacks that could knock it offline. The decision comes a day after a gunman in El Paso, Texas, opened fire at a Walmart, killing 20 people and injuring 26. Minutes before the shooting, the suspected killer, who is now in police custody, posted a manifesto on 8chan, explaining that his target was the Latino people he believes are invading the United States and detailing the weaponry he planned to use to carry out the attack. The shooter implored his community on 8chan to “Do your part and spread this brothers!” This appeared to be the third instance—after shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Poway, California—in which a white supremacist posted a manifesto to 8chan with instructions to share it, and then committed murder. (Update, 2:17 p.m. ET: Shortly after CloudFlare terminated its service with 8chan, the message board was able to find another security provider, BitMitigate, which is the same internet service company the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer turned to after CloudFlare cut its service in 2017. Ars Technica reported Monday morning that 8chan appears to have gone offline again.)

8chan was founded in 2013 as an even more transgressive, freewheeling alternative to the already troll-friendly 4chan. For years, its unmoderated boards have been a haven for racists and anti-Semites, misogynists, and anyone who revels in a solidly offensive joke. The site has no rules against doxing, so it’s where trolls gather to share targets’ private information, coordinate harassment campaigns, spread conspiracy theories, and now translate the hate they’ve cultivated online into deadly violence. It’s currently operated out of the Philippines by a U.S. Army veteran named Jim Watkins and his son Ronald. They have allowed to flourish a culture that has stoked each subsequent shooting. 8channers encouraged the Poway killer, who fired at a synagogue, to “get the high score” and murder more people than the Christchurch shooter, whom the El Paso shooter praised in his own manifesto.

At first, following Saturday morning’s shooting, Cloudflare told reporters it would not ban 8chan, since it does not allow content on its customers’ sites to factor into its business decisions. By Sunday night, however, CEO Matthew Prince said that 8chan had crossed a line that had forced Cloudflare to act. “The rationale is simple: they have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths,” he wrote. “Even if 8chan may not have violated the letter of the law in refusing to moderate their hate-filled community, they have created an environment that revels in violating its spirit.”

This isn’t the first time that Cloudflare has pulled business from a customer because of hateful content. In 2017, following the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Prince made the call to cut ties with the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website where the rally was organized and promoted. At the time, domain registrars GoDaddy and Google Domains also booted the Daily Stormer. But Prince was self-reflective about the potential drawbacks of his actions, coming as they did from a company that is meant to be a neutral internet service. “Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet,” he wrote. “No one should have that power.” His point was that the internet shouldn’t be controlled by a handful of powerful companies, and he felt deeply uncomfortable deciding what content shouldn’t get to be online.

In order for a website to run, it has to work with various internet service companies that help with basic issues of infrastructure, like providing a domain name, cloud hosting, and security services that help ensure the site is protected from cyberattacks. When multiple major web service providers decide to stop doing business with a website, it can be difficult for a website to stay on the internet at all—at least until it finds other companies willing to do business with it. After the Daily Stormer lost its hosting, domain, and security services in 2017, the site fled to the dark web, where it was much harder to find and thus had a much more difficult time spreading its neo-Nazi agenda. Eventually, however, the Daily Stormer was able to find other web service companies to work with it, and it’s once again easily accessible.

Advocates have been calling for web companies like Cloudflare to stop providing service to 8chan all weekend. “If we’re going to have a broader conversation about hate online, [Prince] should first acknowledge his company’s own role in allowing it to grow,” tweeted the group Sleeping Giants, which campaigns for companies to pull their advertisements off websites that espouse hate.

Cloudflare’s action is a form of deplatforming. That term usually refers to the internet fortunes of an individual user who has been kicked off social media sites, like when Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube all banned Infowars host Alex Jones, presumably because he was using their platforms to promote dangerous conspiracy theories that led to harassment. Cloudflare, however, is an internet services company, and its decision not to host 8chan anymore isn’t about protecting other users on a social network. Rather, it’s about stepping in to make life harder for a website that probably won’t be policed by anyone else; that’s why Prince repeatedly calls 8chan “lawless.” Cloudflare doesn’t want to involve itself in content decisions, because it’s one of the most important toll booths on the web. Still, the company’s centrality to the basic functioning of the internet nevertheless makes Cloudflare a late line of defense. That’s still not a role Cloudflare wants, which is why Prince uses part of his blog post to urge lawmakers to provide clarity about how governments handle websites that refuse to moderate their communities even when they incubate violence. But for now, Cloudflare has decided to act as internet cop.

What happens next is this: 8chan will have to find another security services company for its site to remain secure from attacks. Like the Daily Stormer, it will probably succeed eventually. Or perhaps other companies will follow Cloudflare’s example, and decide they don’t want to do business with the No. 1 website for murderers with a message to get out.