Cloudflare and It’s ‘Free Speech Absolutist’ CEO Haven’t Quit Gab
Tech companies have pulled the plug on the social-media site used by the alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, but one is holding firm.
Tech companies have cut ties with the extremist-friendly website Gab, but digital security company Cloudflare appears to be standing by the site.
The decision represents a growing controversy over how tech companies respond to violent extremism. Some, like PayPal and GoDaddy, decided to end their involvement with Gab after it was revealed that a man who allegedly murdered 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue had used Gab to write violently anti-Semitic posts, and apparently to announce his killing spree. Others, like Cloudflare, which protects websites from denial-of-service attacks, are helping Gab get back online.
Gab is currently inoperable but claims to be securing new tech partners.
“We've been vocal about that fact that deep infrastructure companies like Cloudflare should not be in the position to make editorial decisions based on content,” the company told Lawfare.
Cloudflare is known for its track record of virtually never banning clients. But it broke that pattern in a similar case of violent right-wing extremism last year, when its CEO Matthew Prince decided to stop serving the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer. Prince, who later called himself “almost a free-speech absolutist” later indicated that he had felt financial pressure to end work with the hate site, and that he would not take similar steps in the future.
Gab has previously lost support from web companies that found Gab to have violated their terms of service. But they differ on where to draw the line on violent hate speech, with some companies acting early, and other adopting and anything-goes attitude in the name of free speech.
Gab markets itself as a “free speech” platform. Others on the far right have taken up “free speech” as a catch-all excuse for being abjectly terrible. Extremist micro-celebrities like Milo Yiannopoulos and Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, and fascist-studded rallies like “Boston Free Speech,” and the deadly Unite the Right 2 rally in Charlottesville last year have also gathered the far-right at live events in the name of provocative speech.
But the “free speech” defenses conceal the other purpose of these digital and online platforms: they’re organizing hubs for the far-right. Events by Yiannopoulos and McInnes have routinely ended in violence. Nine members of McInnes’ gang the Proud Boys currently face charges for their alleged role in a brawl after a McInnes speech at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Republican Club this month. Two Yiannopoulos fans are awaiting trial for their alleged role in shooting an anti-Yiannopoulos protester in 2017.
Gab saw members of violent far-right groups recruit, radicalize, and organize in the open. The site also served as a springboard for more private extremist discussions on the chat app Discord, according to leaked chats published by the nonprofit media group Unicorn Riot. The leaked chats show far-right personalities like YouTuber Brittany Pettibone (who maintains a less-extreme public profile) privately promising to attend a private chat on the “Jewish Question.”
Discord has a policy of kicking off violent extremists.
Abandoning Gab isn’t just an ideological stand: for some companies, it’s a matter of money. Stripe and PayPal, two payment processors that worked with Gab, were warned this summer that content on Gab violated the companies’ policies on hate speech and promotion of violence, The Daily Beast previously reported. Despite those warnings, the companies only distanced themselves from Gab on Saturday, shortly after the massacre, when the association with Gab had become too toxic.
Cloudflare’s stance on extremism might also come with a price tag. The company is reportedly planning to go public on the stock market next year, and associations with controversial sites might turn off potential investors.