TECH
25/07/2018 10:46 BST | Updated 27/07/2018 22:39 BST

From Nazis To Incels: How One Tech Company Helps Hate Groups Thrive

Cloudflare refuses to regulate the sadistic content it optimizes and protects online.

By all standards, the forum Incels.me is a hate group. Littered through well over 1 million messages is a cascade of posts calling for women to be raped, decapitated, stabbed, starved, poisoned, skinned, cannibalized, blinded, mutilated, sodomized, tortured, beaten, burned, enslaved and otherwise brutally killed, simply because they are women. (Unedited excerpts from some of these messages appear below. Readers may find them disturbing.)

Many of Incels.me’s 6,800 members ― sexually frustrated men who identify as involuntarily celibate (incel) ― are strikingly candid about their violent misogyny. Posts such as “I wanna rape her then behead her,” “We have to strike back at all these whores,” “I have groped girls against their will, you should try it” and “I want to kill [women] so fucking bad. I want to take their lives. I want them to fucking suffer” are standard fare on the rapidly growing website.

Its sister site, Incelocalypse, is a message board for incels who want to make women and children their “rape-slaves.” As HuffPost uncovered in May, it was created by Nathan Larson, a congressional candidate in Virginia who is an openly pro-rape pedophile. The page has been dumped and temporarily forced offline by multiple web domain registrars (most recently Russia’s RU Center), but it resurfaces each time. Its members have repeatedly encouraged each other to commit crimes including kidnapping, rape, incest and homicide.

One man on the Incelocalypse forum attempted to commission a guide on “how to rape” for $100 last month, noting “the guide should explain how to lure a victim, kill it, what to do with the corpse, and anything else that you think is important.” Another said he would rape female toddlers because “they will all become worthless sluts.”

Both websites were created within the past year. And both have thrived in an era in which attention has been trained not just on forums for sadistic misogynists, but also on the enabling infrastructure of the internet that sustains them. So how have they survived while brazenly endorsing violence against women? They use Cloudflare.

Incels.me

From Nazis To Incels And Pedophiles

You may not have heard of Cloudflare. The massive but little-known internet security company has developed a reputation for keeping controversial websites online. It has attracted clients including fascists, hackers, terrorists, incels and pedophiles, and it has sparked debate about web companies’ extralegal role in regulating the online hate speech they optimize and amplify.

Cloudflare made rare headlines last year in the wake of an alleged murder, when it found itself embroiled in a fiery dispute over free speech online with hordes of neo-Nazis. It was mid-August, and a far-right protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, had turned deadly after a man slammed a vehicle into a crowd of people, killing a counterprotester named Heather Heyer. The “Unite the Right” rally was organized in part by The Daily Stormer, a Cloudflare-protected neo-Nazi website that encouraged attendees to be violent. After Heyer’s death, the site called her a fat “slut” and urged its readers to crash her funeral.

The Daily Stormer
The Daily Stormer published an article about Charlottlesville victim Heather Heyer, suggesting "most people are glad she is dead."

Public outrage erupted, leading one domain registrar after another to drop The Daily Stormer, briefly shutting it down until it scrambled to find a new home online that would tolerate its hateful content. In a statement explaining why it cut the site loose, internet company Tucows wrote: “Like Google, and GoDaddy before them, we felt [The Daily Stormer] clearly violated our terms of service by inciting violence.” The Daily Stormer also tried to find refuge with Namecheap, which denied it service and published a blog post about that decision titled “Inciting Violence vs Freedom of Speech.”

But Cloudflare held its ground, standing by The Daily Stormer as other internet companies backed away. Its services ― also provided to Incels.me, Incelocalypse and millions of other websites around the globe ― are essential for controversial sites’ survival. Cloudflare shields and optimizes content; it is not a host provider (although its “Always Online” feature caches a static version of pages in case their server goes offline). It acts as a digital fortress, fending off the kind of vigilante hacker campaigns that so often disable contentious sites.

As the company’s CEO put it: “The size and scale of the attacks that can now easily be launched online make it such that if you don’t have a network like Cloudflare in front of your content, and you upset anyone, you will be knocked offline.” A diagram from the Southern Poverty Law Center illustrates how Cloudflare protects against crippling cyberassaults.

Cloudflare continued to defend The Daily Stormer from a campaign of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks launched after Heyer’s death, asserting that it would maintain a neutral position despite mounting pressure to abandon the site. To be sure, Cloudflare did not support or endorse The Daily Stormer’s views but rather, as tech author Steven Johnson described it, “Cloudflare was acting like the muscle guarding the podium at a Nazi rally.”

Like Incelocalypse, The Daily Stormer survived while hopping from one domain to the next largely thanks to sustained protection from Cloudflare. Quartz offered a concise explanation at the time:

“If [Cloudflare] were to drop the Daily Stormer, the site would for all intents and purposes cease to exist any time it came under concerted DDoS attack from anti-fascist activists. If the Daily Stormer lost its web hosting service, on the other hand, it would have countless others to choose from.

Remarkably, what sealed The Daily Stormer’s fate last summer wasn’t its torrent of hate speech or its incitement to violence. It was its reported claim amid the post-Charlottesville chaos that Cloudflare staff were, in fact, “secretly supporters of their ideology.”

“We could not remain neutral after these claims of secret support by Cloudflare,” the company said in a statement upon terminating the neo-Nazi site, noting its decision marked a reluctant, unprecedented reversal of its policy and was a “dangerous” use of censorship. Without a committed domain registrar or cyberprotection, The Daily Stormer retreated to the dark web with its community of fascists, who proclaimed they’d been unjustly silenced.

Cloudflare, however, still serves dozens of other hate groups, including Stormfront.org, another major neo-Nazi site that was established by a Ku Klux Klan leader. As the Southern Poverty Law Center points out, far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik (now known as Fjotolf Hansen) spent time on Stormfront before killing 77 people in 2011. Cloudflare has also been accused of providing cybersecurity services to terrorist websites. 

Free Speech vs. Violent Hate Speech

Founded in 2009 to “power and protect the entire internet,” Cloudflare now handles nearly 10 percent of all internet requests for more than 2.5 billion people worldwide, according to its website. It gained prestige after mitigating multiple record-breaking cyberassaults, including one in 2014 that was the internet’s largest known DDoS attack at the time. The San Francisco-based company has wrestled with the issue of censorship since its start-up days ― long before neo-Nazis, incels and pedophiles were flocking to use its services.

Without a legal requirement to regulate hate speech, internet companies are left to navigate the deeply complex sphere of deciding what is and what is not allowed on their platforms ― an issue that has spawned countless editorials and think pieces. Drawing the line at extreme misogynist and fascist content in an effort to prevent real-life violence may seem like a no-brainer to many, but experts warn it could set a dangerous precedent.

Any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others. Electronic Frontier Foundation

Civil liberties organization Electronic Frontier Foundation released a poignant statement in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, highlighting the trouble with selective censorship: “All fair-minded people must stand against the hateful violence and aggression that seems to be growing across our country. But we must also recognize that on the internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with” such as the Black Lives Matter movement, it said.

Raising such concerns, Cloudflare’s general counsel, Doug Kramer, explained why the company holds a firmly neutral stance, with very few exceptions, regarding content on the sites it serves.

“We try to balance the desire for an open internet on the one hand, where it’s not just state-controlled interests or moneyed interests that get access to a safe and secure internet, but on the other hand … [we find that] passing judgment on what is and is not appropriate content online is a difficult and inappropriate place for us to be,” Kramer told HuffPost. He declined to comment on Incels.me, Incelocalypse or any specific Cloudflare client.

Internal conversations about controversial clients first arose when Cloudflare became entangled in the Turkish sex trade in 2011, as scores of escort services in the country recognized its distinguished ability to keep pages online, according to a Wired report. After facing backlash for some of the objectionable content flowing through Cloudflare’s systems, CEO Matthew Prince argued that a website is simply “speech” and “not a bomb.”

“No provider has an affirmative obligation to monitor and make determinations about the theoretically harmful nature of speech a site may contain,” Prince said in 2013, adding there is “no imminent danger [a website] creates.”

Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP
People fly into the air as a vehicle drives into a group of protesters in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017.

But that was before Charlottesville, before other preventable tragedies spawned in the dark corners of the internet. The notion that a website “is nothing but speech,” as Prince suggested, seems almost quaint today. Online writings about harming people aren’t always jokes or fantasies, and countless individuals ― including incels ― have been radicalized in online groups to commit acts of mass violence.

In April, a man rammed a van into a crowd of people in Toronto, killing eight women and two men. Shortly before the attack, the suspect published a post online celebrating the “Incel Rebellion.” His message included unique terminology that is commonly used in incel forums including Incels.me and Incelocalypse (where he was subsequently hailed as a “hero” and an “inspiration”), casting incels into the spotlight and drawing media attention to both websites.

Ghoulishly, death has proved to be the most effective tool for shutting down violent online hate groups.

In 2014, a self-proclaimed incel named Elliot Rodger killed himself and six others in Isla Vista, California, after threatening to do so online. Reports quickly surfaced of his past posts on one of Incels.me’s predecessors, PUAHate.com, including “Don’t you want to punish women for rejecting you?” and “Once women are brought to their knees, things can be reformed. The sooner this happens, the better.” The site was permanently removed soon after.

hostadvice.com

Domain hosts will sometimes take a site down if they receive complaints about its content, but Cloudflare can hinder this process as well. It offers services that can hide a site’s host provider and IP address, as it appears to be doing for Incels.me, making it difficult for concerned netizens to know where to direct their complaints.

When Cloudflare receives a complaint about a website it protects, it will forward the report to the site’s host provider (as it did with Incelocalypse) instead of directly intervening. This got the company into Nazi-related trouble even before the Charlottesville rally last year. Many people who had submitted complaints about The Daily Stormer became victims of targeted harassment after Cloudflare forwarded their contact information to the neo-Nazi site, effectively ratting them out to a vengeful bully. Cloudflare has since adjusted its system.

Drawing The Line

Private internet companies can reserve the right to terminate a client’s website if its users post content that violates their terms of service, as many did with The Daily Stormer. GoDaddy, for example, does not allow its clients to use their sites in a manner that “promotes, encourages or engages in terrorism, violence against people, animals, or property,” or for “morally objectionable activities.”

Cloudflare, of course, is also free to set such terms, but has argued that it has no business regulating content because it is a security and delivery network, not a host provider.

“If you look at the way our system runs, it is a system that moves bits around the internet as quickly and securely as possible but doesn’t do anything with the content therein, the way that a host or a social media platform might,” said Kramer. “So we think getting into that business for the purposes of making decisions about content, which we’re not equipped to do because it’s not our expertise, creates more problems than benefits.” He compared this practice to “going to AT&T and asking them to listen in on phone calls.”

Other delivery networks don’t seem to see it that way, and have placed explicit restrictions on content. Akamai, one of Cloudflare’s competitors, states that it “takes no responsibility for any customer or user content created,” but also forbids clients from distributing or storing “material that is illegal, defamatory, libelous, indecent, obscene, pornographic” and so forth. Likewise, Incapsula clients must agree not to “transmit or post content that is harmful, threatening, abusive, defamatory, or ... any material that encourages conduct that could constitute a criminal offense or promotes harm or injury against any group or individual.”

Incels.me
Men on Incels.me describe their urges to "burn femoids [women] alive" and "crack their heads open on the pavement."

Cloudflare does not prohibit any kind of abusive behavior or incitement to violence. Instead, it broadly requires clients to use their websites “in compliance with any and all applicable laws and regulations,” and reserves the right to suspend or terminate its services without notice or reason.

As such, comments including “All the time, I think of new schemes by which incels might kidnap and rape femoids [women],” “I’ve gone to sleep every night fantasizing about torturing women,” “We need to shatter feminists’ sense of security and terrorize the crap out of them,” “I hope the cunt [his mother] gets gang raped and her body chopped up and left on the side of the road like a piece of shit,” “I’m obsessed with murdering some of them [women he knows],” and other alarming posts ― some which are too gruesome to republish here ― are rampant on Incels.me and remain posted there today without consequence.

This kind of extreme misogyny has prompted a handful of internet companies to proactively sever ties with violent incel websites. Namecheap terminated incel.life in February. DreamHost took Incelocalypse offline in May, before it reappeared on RU Center shortly thereafter with sustained protection from Cloudflare. RU Center shut it down in late June, but Larson, Incelocalypse’s pro-rape and -pedophilia creator, told HuffPost he’s been looking for a new host. Essentially, as long as such sites are guarded by Cloudflare, they can keep springing back up without real repercussions after host providers pull the plug.

Incelocalypse
A post on Incelocalypse explains how to "psyche yourself up to feel entitled to rape."

A new forum for incels and pedophiles has already popped up to fill the void left by Incelocalypse for the time being. It’s protected by Cloudflare.

Cloudflare’s refusal to regulate hate speech and its indiscriminate devotion to clients ― regardless of any violent ideologies they may overtly espouse ― has earned glowing praise from rape proponents and femicide advocates alike.

Incels.me “will never actually go down as long as we have Cloudfare [sic],” one member of the forum wrote in May. In separate posts on the website, he has encouraged other men to kill “fat whores,” bragged about creating a fake online dating profile to trick and humiliate women, and repeatedly suggested women “love being raped.”

“Cloudflare doesn’t give a damn as long as the bills are paid,” said another user. “They’ll never take us down.”