On Wednesday, Cloudflare terminated its content delivery network services for an alternative, decentralized social media platform called Switter. Developed by the Australia-based organization Assembly Four, the weeks-old Switter served as a home for thousands of sex workers and their fans and clients after they were kicked off or preemptively removed themselves from mainstream internet platforms because of FOSTA.
The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which President Donald Trump signed into law last week, has caused a number of websites where sex workers gather and communicate to shut down in the last month. FOSTA makes sites more liable for what users say and do—and any platform found “facilitating prostitution” faces penalties under the law.
Now Cloudflare has confirmed to Motherboard that the company terminated service to Switter because of FOSTA, but also said it's "a very bad law."
When organizers at Assembly Four reached out to Cloudflare for explanation, they were met with a vague notice that Switter violated the company’s Terms of Service.
“We are worried we won't be the only casualty in the fight for sex workers' right to have an online presence, not to mention any other community the US government deems inappropriate,” Lola Hunt, co-founder of Switter, told me after the removal.
Switter is an instance on Mastodon, a social network similar to Twitter where anyone can open their own community with its own theme and guidelines. Switter moved to a new content delivery network and is still up, but Cloudflare’s decision to terminate service was jarring for those in the industry. Cloudflare, historically, has been a vocal supporter of the open internet.
“We think, for now, it makes the internet a different place and a little less free today as a result."
I talked to Doug Kramer, Cloudflare’s general counsel, about the company’s decision. In a phone conversation, he told me that FOSTA was an ill-considered bill that’s now become a dangerous law.
“[Terminating service to Switter] is related to our attempts to understand FOSTA, which is a very bad law and a very dangerous precedent,” he told me in a phone conversation. “We have been traditionally very open about what we do and our roles as an internet infrastructure company, and the steps we take to both comply with the law and our legal obligations—but also provide security and protection, let the internet flourish and support our goals of building a better internet.”
Cloudflare lobbied against FOSTA, Kramer said, urging lawmakers to be more specific about how infrastructure companies like internet service providers, registrars and hosting and security companies like Cloudflare would be impacted. Now, he said, they’re trying to figure out how customers like Switter will be affected, and how Cloudflare will be held accountable for them.
“We don’t deny at all that we have an obligation to comply with the law,” he said. “We tried in this circumstance to get a law that would make sense for infrastructure companies… Congress didn’t do the hard work of understanding how the internet works and how this law should be crafted to pursue its goals without unintended consequences. We talked to them about this. A lot of groups did. And it was hard work that they decided not do.”
He said the company hopes, going forward, that there will be more clarity from lawmakers on how FOSTA is applied to internet infrastructure. But until then, he and others there are having to figure it out along with law enforcement and customers.
“Listen, we’ve been saying this all along and I think people are saying now, this is a very bad law,” Kramer said. “We think, for now, it makes the internet a different place and a little less free today as a result. And there’s a real-world implication of this that people are just starting to grapple with.”