Cloudflare Is One of the Companies That Quietly Powers the Internet. Researchers Say It's a Haven for Misinformation

·3 min read
Signage outside the Cloudflare headquarters in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.
Signage outside the Cloudflare headquarters in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

Signage outside the Cloudflare headquarters in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. Credit - David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

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. Insider has reported that, in the past, harassment campaigns from Kiwi Farms have been linked to three deaths by suicide.

Although Cloudflare does not host Kiwi Farms (and so, does not have total control over whether it stays online), it does provide several key services for the site, Axios reports.

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

To date, Cloudflare has declined to comment on the allegations, and whether it will continue to work with Kiwi Farms. The company did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.

The outsized role of companies like Cloudflare

Cloudflare is, at its core, a content delivery network (CDN) which quickly serves users websites that they request through their web browsers. It also defends sites against attackers. James Ball, author of The Tangled Web We Weave: Inside The Shadow System That Shapes the Internet, tells TIME that such companies are “the backbone of the modern internet.”

But a new study suggests that Cloudflare also plays an outsized role in propping up sites that peddle hate and misinformation. The May 2022 study from Stanford University researchers analyzed which services hosted 440 of the most prominent misinformation websites in the world.

They found that Cloudflare was a safe haven for toxicity. Although just one in five websites across the mainstream internet are hosted by Cloudflare, it hosts one in three websites known primarily for spreading hate speech or misinformation.

That makes Cloudflare the main platform misinformation websites have used for hosting 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.

Amazon, Google, GoDaddy, and Unified Layer round out the top five CDNs hosting misinformation websites, according to the Stanford researchers.

Ball says that many CDNs argue that they are neutral service providers simply passing data through their systems to meet 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.”

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.