Over Labor Day weekend, one of the biggest online security services providers, Cloudflare, made what it called a “dangerous” decision to block access to one of its most controversial customers, an increasingly violent alt-right web forum called Kiwi Farms.
The decision came two weeks into a pressure campaign called “Drop Kiwi Farms.” It was launched by Clara Sorrenti—online alias “Keffals”—a transgender activist and Twitch streamer among those targeted most venomously by Kiwi Farms. The goal was to protect people like Keffals and fight back by forcing Cloudflare and other Internet service providers to stop enabling Kiwi Farms’ escalating attacks on trans people and other vulnerable communities.
The pressure campaign raged on social media, while Cloudflare held out for weeks. But then, within a 48-hour period, Cloudflare noted that Kiwi Farms users were growing increasingly aggressive and had started doxxing and swatting victims. (Doxxing is when someone publishes private information to incite violence against a target, and swatting involves placing a hoax call reporting imminent suicide or gun violence to police so they descend on targets with force.)
Drop Kiwi Farms also reported that the forum’s attacks were becoming more extreme. Cloudflare said this escalation was in direct response to the pressure campaign. In a short time, Cloudflare watched as Kiwi Farms mutated from a valid customer in need of Cloudflare’s protection from cybersecurity attacks conducted by people complaining about the “revolting content” it hosts to suddenly appearing to pose an “imminent threat to human life.”
“We definitely had complaints coming in,” Alissa Starzak, Cloudflare’s VP, global head of public policy, told Ars. “But if you were watching even mainstream social media over the weekend, what you saw are some things that were really direct threats, some very specific information about things that were planned.”
“That escalation is what started to worry us,” Starzak told Ars. “That’s really what prompted us to act over the weekend.”
There was no time to involve law enforcement and allow for due process, Cloudflare decided. This was a new level of violence unlike high-profile prior cases in which Cloudflare waited through a legal process before blocking similarly hateful forums like 8chan in 2019 or The Daily Stormer in 2017.
“We believe there is an unprecedented emergency and immediate threat to human life unlike we have previously seen from Kiwi Farms or any other customer before,” Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince wrote in a blog on Saturday explaining the decision.
Cloudflare’s “uncomfortable” call
In the blog post, Prince wrote that Cloudflare’s decision was not in response to the pressure campaign but rather to Cloudflare’s realization that the law enforcement process was moving much too slowly.
Because 20 percent of the Internet relies on Cloudflare to provide security services—and these clients are the majority of the tech company’s customer base—Prince clarified that this decision does not set a precedent for how Cloudflare will respond to complaints against any of its millions of customers in the future. He also said that it’s likely that Kiwi Farms would find other Internet infrastructure to come back online, so Cloudflare saw the solution as only temporary—but that it possibly set a dangerous precedent of companies having outsized control over which websites should be allowed to be attacked because of their content.
Prince said Cloudflare would continue to support law enforcement investigations into Kiwi Farms but that the company’s decision in no way represents Cloudflare’s ideal resolution process for complaints over its security services customers.
“We will continue to work proactively with law enforcement to help with their investigations into the site and the individuals who have posted what may be illegal content to it,” Prince wrote. “And we recognize that while our blocking Kiwi Farms temporarily addresses the situation, it by no means solves the underlying problem. That solution will require much more work across society. We are hopeful that our action today will help provoke conversations toward addressing the larger problem. And we stand ready to participate in that conversation.”