CloudflareCloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince (left) moderates a conversation with Larry Lessig (center), and Darren Bolding.
Cloudflare hosted its annual Internet Summit this past week.
- At the event, CEO Matthew Prince openly discussed his controversial decision to drop a neo-Nazi website as a customer.
- While attendees largely opposed internet regulation, the feeling wasn’t uniform.
Matthew Prince isn’t shying away from the internet censorship debate.
That was clear this week when the CEO of Cloudflare hosted the third annual Internet Summit at his company’s San Francisco headquarters. Instead of just concentrating on technology or business issues, several of the sessions at the conference focused on the philosophical concern with which the tech industry has been wrestling lately — how and when the internet should be regulated.
Oh those neo-Nazis
In late August, Prince made the decision to drop The Daily Stormer as a Cloudflare customer, essentially exposing the neo-Nazi website to hacker attacks. The move followed a wave of scrutiny and condemnation of The Daily Stormer concerning its coverage of a white-supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Once Cloudflare stopped providing a buffer between the neo-Nazi website and its visitors, The Daily Stormer quickly succumbed to a denial-of-service attack. It’s been offline ever since.
Prince has said repeatedly that he was uncomfortable and unhappy with his decision to stop protecting the website. Since then, Cloudflare has received 3,500 requests to drop support for other sites, Prince told Business Insider at the conference. The company hasn’t acceded to any of those requests, but they’re an indication of what Prince sees as a slippery slope toward internet censorship.
Others at the conference saw the situation similarly. Lee Rowland, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, openly condemned Prince.
“You put censorship blood in the water,” she said.
The First Amendment bars the government from prohibiting speech it doesn’t like. But it allows private companies to do what they’d like. As Prince’s decision on The Daily Stormer demonstrated, Cloudflare, because of its power, can itself effectively control who gets to speak online.
Some conference speakers suggested that we as a society need to figure out how balance the rights of private companies with our concerns about their growing power. In particular, some suggested that companies like Cloudflare that provide the basic, foundational layers of internet communications ought to be protected from pressures to censor content. One suggestion was that Cloudflare and similar companies should be governed by something like the First Amendment that would prohibit them from restricting speech and require any attempts to use them to curtail speech to go through the courts.
“Communications 2.0 makes the First Amendment almost quaint,” said Rowland. “The vast majority of speech that we exchange happens online. When it is hosted by private companies, the First Amendment doesn’t constrain it.”
She added: “We have a completely unaccountable private medium of communication.”
The problem with Big Data
The general consensus in the tech industry is that the government generally shouldn’t be able to restrict what content goes online. However, many at the conference thought an exception to that rule might be Big Data, and the ability of large corporations to use it to influence public opinion.
In a conversation moderated by Prince, famed technology theorist and Harvard Law professor Larry Lessig sat on stage with Darren Bolding, the chief technology officer of Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that worked with the Donald Trump’s presidential campaign on targeted messaging. The topic was “Will data destroy democracy?”
Bolding vehemently denied that his work — using data on past internet activity to target messages to particular voters — won Trump the election. Instead, he said, targeted messaging is a way of amplifying otherwise marginalized voices.
“I think personalisation of information will allow individuals to better communicate with people they know. Rather than have one person broadcasting, you’ll have personal relationships,” Bolding said. “The dispersion of the central control over the message out to individuals is very powerful.”
Lessig contended that the US political system has been upended by the end of mass media and its replacement with such micro-targeted messages. In last year’s election, that development may have undermined democracy, he said.
“If there’s no common ground of understanding, that may be good for winning elections, but not for actually governing,” Lessig said.
When it came time for audience questions, one attendee asked if regulation was the best way to prevent Big Data from swinging elections. Another asked Bolding where he draws the line on “absurd racial messages,” highlighting concerns about whether Cambridge Analytica, to help Trump win, encouraged racial divisions.
Bolding said he didn’t believe that Cambridge “pushed any racially charged messaging.”
Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017
Another topic of discussion at the conference was the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017. That bill would amend the Communications Decency Act, a law that protects internet companies including Google and Facebook from being sued or criminally charged over items posted by their users, to allow states to hold internet companies legally accountable for content related to sex trafficking.
Historically, large tech companies and digital right advocates have steadfastly opposed legislation that would hold internet companies accountable for what their users do on their services. At the conference, speakers Daphne Keller from the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, and Rowland from the ACLU, echoed that view, arguing that the sex-trafficking bill would set a bad precedent and would lead to censorship and the monitoring of internet communications.
Outside of the conference, however, the sex-trafficking bill has found unanticipated support from at least one big tech player — Oracle. Both the database giant and mass media company 21st Century Fox are backing the bill as part of what The Verge’s Sarah Jeong calls a “proxy war over Google.”
All told, the event made clear that there’s no longer a consensus, even in the tech community, that the internet should remain free from regulation.