• ProPublica Attacks First Amendment, Cloudflare Edition

    May 8, 2017 // 12 Comments »



    You’re almost certainly interacting with Cloudflare right now. Feel OK?

    Cloudflare is a web services company that, among other things, protects sites against various malicious attacks and hacks. They don’t “host” data in most cases, but work as a kind of middleman between you and the server out there somewhere on the web that has the actual data. Cloudflare processes more web traffic than Twitter, Amazon, Apple, Instagram, and Wikipedia combined, because it handles data for most of those places at the same time. On average, you have interacted with a Cloudflare service 500 times today. This blog uses Cloudflare, as does the FBI, OKCupid and The Daily Stormer.

    You may not be as familiar with The Daily Stormer, but it is a nasty white supremacist site. They feature all sorts of hate, with a particular focus on anti-Semitism. Real garbage. But garbage fully protected under America’s long tradition of free speech (and yes, I understand the legal side of the First Amendment applies to government and not private businesses, but the broader concept of free speech underlies every democracy and has been the cornerstone of our inalienable rights in America. America at its best has always sought ways to broaden speech and access to ideas, not game ways to block them.)


    Yet in another example of assault on free speech from the left, investigative journalists ProPublica are now “outing” Cloudflare for providing business services to The Daily Stormer.

    ProPublica writes:

    The operations of such extreme sites [The Daily Stormer] are made possible, in part, by an otherwise very mainstream internet company — Cloudflare. The widespread use of Cloudflare’s services by racist groups is not an accident. Cloudflare has said it is not in the business of censoring websites and will not deny its services to even the most offensive purveyors of hate.

    The wording, implying Cloudflare has some special affinity for racist groups, is noted.


    Though it only cites three specific cases, ProPublica also makes much out of claims that Cloudflare, in accordance with its policies, forwarded content-related complaints about The Daily Stormer it received to the site itself. Apparently persons offended by Stormer’s speech wrote to Cloudflare demanding censorship. The complaintants felt their voluntary, public demand, to include their real names and contact information, demanding censorship, should itself be kept top secret from those they wished to censor.

    The idea is that (three) people offended by The Daily Stormer sought to shut the site down by threatening the “printer,” Cloudflare, who conveys information in a content neutral fashion. ProPublica is in favor of this.

    Of course shutting down printing presses to prevent the spread of ideas is old-school fascism. Sad to see a group like ProPublica, which thrives under the broader ideals of unfettered speech, trying to do away with such protections for others.

    I also guess as journalists ProPublica are unfamiliar with the trial of Peter Zenger, where, in pre-revolutionary America the government tried to punish a printer Peter Zenger for printing something offensive someone else wrote. Defended by Alexander Hamilton, Zenger was found not guilty. The trial is seen as the beginnings of what became our mighty First Amendment, and a significant victory for free speech. It established the precedent that you can’t shut down a means of conveyance of speech as a backdoor way to censor speech.



    Now, c’mon, I get it.

    Actually, ProPublica is familiar with the Zenger trial, citing its precedents on libel in a November 2016 article regarding fears that then President-Elect Trump might threaten parts of the First Amendment.

    ProPublica are smart people, and they understand the Zenger case and they understand the root value of free speech in America. But they are trying to be clever, talking fast to the rubes on the left who suddenly “woke” to allow their prejudices to be manipulated. It’s fundraising time, and groups like ProPublica know the money right now is to be made not in content-free defense of free speech, but in being seen as part of The Resistance.

    They know in the Age of Trump no progressive is going to stand up for the rights of unpopular speakers on the right, even though real progressives know that’s the pure thing to do in our democracy and always has been. Nope, the good guys are going to look down at their shoes and mumble mumble when these tough issues arise, say something about “means to an end” and the “greater good” and allow once stalwart defenders of liberty like ProPublica to get away with peddling hate in the guise of opposing it.

    Just know not everyone is fooled, and some of us are making notes. And that every call for censorship risks someone returning the favor.



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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America

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