Researchers Say Cloudflare is a Misinformation Haven

Cloudflare is one of dozens of companies that quietly keep the internet working—helping 36 million web pages per second reach internet users as intended. But it’s also now facing scrutiny for its role in keeping platforms that have been called toxic and hateful up and running, too.

Most recently, it’s been under pressure from activists urging it to withdraw its services from Kiwi Farms, an online group that’s been described by New York Magazine as “the web’s biggest community of stalkers.”

Kiwi Farms is reportedly behind an ongoing harassment campaign aimed at a trans livestreamer and activist—an effort so destructive that it drove its target into hiding earlier this month. In the past, suicide by Kiwi Farms harassment campaigns have led to three deaths, according to Insider.

Cloudflare is not a Kiwi Farms host and so does not have full control of whether or not it remains online, however, it offers several important services, Axios reports.

Critics say that Cloudflare—and others like it—are turning a blind eye to hate misinformation. They’ve corraled their anger under different hashtags on Twitter, including #dropkiwifarms and #cloudflaresupportsterrorists.

Cloudflare declined to comment to date on the claims and its future plans with Kiwi Farms. The company did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.

Cloudflare’s enormous role

Cloudflare, which is a content delivery system (CDN), serves websites to users quickly through web browsers. It protects web sites from attacks. James Ball is the author of Tangled Web we weave: Inside the Shadow System That Shapes The Internet, tells TIME that such companies are “the backbone of the modern internet.”

New research suggests Cloudflare may also play a large role in promoting hate speech and misinformation. Stanford University researchers conducted a May 2022 analysis of which websites hosted the most misinformation sites in the world.

Cloudflare proved to be a safe place for toxic substances. Cloudflare hosts only one fifth of the internet’s websites, but it also hosts three thirds of websites that are known for misinformation or hate speech.

Cloudflare has been the primary platform for misinformation sites to host since 2015.

“We find anecdotally that sites prefer Cloudflare because of its lax acceptable use policies and its free DDoS protection services that help protect against vigilante attacks,” the researchers write. They note that AmmoLand, a popular guns rights blog, has praised the company “for its self-described ‘content-neutral’ stance.”

Cloudflare isn’t alone in its hands-off attitude—other companies also continue to provide services that, if denied to toxic sites like Kiwi Farms, would bring those websites down.

The Stanford researchers have identified five top CDNs for misinformation websites: Amazon, Google GoDaddy and Unified Layer.

Ball claims that CDNs are often portrayed as neutral service providers who simply pass data through the systems of their users to fulfill user demand.

But, Ball says, “That’s not true, though.” He points to the ways that social media companies have routinely, though imperfectly, booted toxic users. “Just like social networks pick who is allowed on their platform, CDNs pick their customers.”

And those choices, Ball says, have consequences: “A decision to keep serving a customer is a decision to help them get their content out.”

Call or text 988 if you think you, or someone close to you may be suffering from a mental-health crisis.. If you need immediate help, dial 911.

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