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The Moral Dilemma of Banning 8chan

Cybersecurity provider Cloudflare got applause for pulling service from the famously hateful message board. But could this move mean more dangerous censorship down the line?
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The anonymous online message board 8chan—where the perpetrators of terror attacks in El Paso, Texas, Christchurch, New Zealand, and Poway, California, allegedly were active users and posted manifestos just before carrying out acts of violence—was shut down Monday by its cybersecurity provider, Cloudflare.

8chan was a place where alt-right users and white supremacists could openly discuss and spread their ideology. Cloudflare chief executive Matthew Prince published a blog post explaining the company's rationale for terminating 8chan as a customer; in Prince's account, 8chan has proven "to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths." Even though 8chan may not have violated any laws, Prince wrote, it deserved to be shut down.

After 8chan was shuttered, the Anti-Defamation League was quick to support Cloudflare's decision.

While applauding Cloudflare, ADL chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt called for further action within the tech and financial industries to prevent platforms from being abused by white supremacists, since Greenblatt considers the proliferation of intolerance on the Internet to be a preventable harm.

"8chan is sort of the septic tank of the Internet. It's a cesspool for some of the worst elements in society to talk about things like child pornography and violent extremism and the ideology around it," Greenblatt told CNN. "But there's a whole value chain that makes services like 8chan work, and there's more things that could be done: The banks and the financial institutions which allow dollars to flow into these services, they should shut them down. The hosting companies that put them up online should shut them down. At the ADL, we really see that the front line in fighting hate is really the Internet."

Still, some observers worry that Cloudflare's decision to ban 8chan will set an ultimately harmful precedent for Internet censorship. Even Prince himself told the New York Times that he worries his action could pave the way for a repressive Middle Eastern government to ask Cloudflare to remove protections for LGBT websites that such a government might consider "lawless."

Ali Breland, who covers Internet disinformation for Mother Jones, wrote a column in May of 2019 explaining how blocking sites like 8chan could backfire. One argument Breland raises is that such action could play into the narratives of white supremacist users who claim they are being victimized, and who can gain momentum when oppressed.

In the same vein, Prince's blog post discusses an incident two years ago, in which Cloudflare discontinued services for the neo-Nazi, white supremacist website the Daily Stormer, which is now back online through a Cloudflare competitor and brags that it currently enjoys "more readers than ever."

Prince wrote in his post that he is aware that this is probably just a temporary roadblock for 8chan, and that, while his move is necessary and takes weight off his shoulders, it doesn't solve the larger problem of preventing hate on the Internet. In order to find a better solution, he calls for tech companies to work with policymakers to better define and enforce the area of the law surrounding unmoderated online platforms.