How Amazon's monster erotica book ban helped shape CloudFlare's stance on censorship

"At least with the US government you know the rules it follows," said CloudFlare's CEO.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2015.
(Image: Steve Jennings/Getty)

NEW YORK -- There are three things that worry CloudFlare chief executive Matthew Prince.

One is the seemingly monolithic debate on encryption, where you're either for it and you hate the police or you're against it and you favor terrorists, and the second is an emerging threat of data integrity, where hackers will screw around with your numbers and figures, and potentially upend the stock markets.

The third took some explaining.

"I worry about Jeff Bezos' bizarre obsession with dinosaur sex," said Prince, towards the end of a long conversation in our New York newsroom.

"I don't think I've ever heard a chief executive -- hell, I don't think I've ever heard anyone say anything like that before," I said.

Prince was referring to how the bookseller and online retail giant banned so-called "monster erotica," a genre of fan-fiction revolving around fantasy-based fictional encounters with mythical or extinct creatures (including dinosaurs), which was for a time sold on its online bookstore. Amazon, according to reports, pulled hundreds of the self-published books it sold -- as well as some content that fetishized incest and rape -- despite "vague" guidelines by the retailer.

"You can make a rational argument that if you're writing books fantasizing about having sex with animals or children, maybe that promotes a certain kind of behavior. But there's no risk of someone abusing a dinosaur," he said.

Amazon did not return a request for comment.

His somewhat grandiose point was simple enough. Should a company decide who its customers should be, or determine who is a good guy and who is a bad guy?

CloudFlare, a San Francisco, Calif.-based networking giant, is known for its various offerings that center around its core ethos of making the internet faster, and safer. The company provides content delivery services, domain name server solutions, and anti-spamming and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) protection for websites and services.

The company, now five years old, which last month scored an additional $110 million in Series D funding, now serves around 5 percent of all internet requests globally.

But its staunch belief that its platform should be open to everyone has led it to see its fair share of controversies.

Prince described in 2012 how his company was caught in the "crossfire" of various "three-letter agencies" and notorious hacker group LulzSec, which had waged an online war for weeks against government websites. Prince told ZDNet at the time that CloudFlare was "never asked by anyone, by any law enforcement organization, to stop providing services," calling it "an interesting question" had they asked. In 2013, the company was accused of giving "some level" of protection to two sites allegedly used by terrorists. Without that protection, those sites would have "completely collapsed" under relentless attacks, the testimony read.

"A website is speech. It is not a bomb," said Prince, in his response at the time.

Prince has said before that it would be "creepy" for his company to make determinations on what is and what is not appropriate speech.

"Our job is to build the pipes, and make sure things go through it," Prince explained. "There are some things that use our network I find abhorrent. But I don't think you want me to determine what's good and what's bad."

"I think that's really scary, when companies do this," Prince reiterated.

But he admitted that this approach has not always been eyed favorably by customers. He said that people hated the company for it. And it went both ways. When a hacker, a customer of his, broke into his email, even then Prince didn't boot the hacker from the CloudFlare network.

There was a good reason, he said. "We insist on process."

Due process: two words that would drop almost anybody to sleep in a moment's notice, but it's one of the core values to Prince that not only "gets us in trouble" with a good portion of his customers, but also law enforcement.

"Sometimes things come in that are really scary," he said. "You just make sure everyone goes through that process, and you're radically consistent about that."

Whether it's a dumb request or it's "something awful," he said, "we're just not going to make a determination on whether it's valid or not." Law enforcement have to follow the right process, he said, which in theory treats everyone equally and fairly.

There's a whole 200-year history of how legal process works in this country," he said. "There are checks and balances. Are they perfect? No, but it's as good as anything else out there."

It's not his job to determine whether or not a person or an organization should use his service. Its for politicians and policy makers and, occasionally, the courts.

As the internet continues to consolidate into the big companies -- Amazon for retail, Google for search and mobile, Apple for devices, and so on -- he argued that the decision to ban or restrict on the "basis of personal value" worries him.

"I don't ever want to be in the position where that's good content and bad content," he said. "If a court comes and says you can't provide service to someone, we'll do everything we can within the law to challenge the order."

"If a final court order comes down and says we can't do something... governments have tanks and guns," he said.

Prince gave the example of one particularly controversial organization, considered by many to be a "hate" group, which in a personal capacity he described as "horrible people." I quizzed him on whether or not he would refuse them service.

He shrugged his shoulders, and shook his head. "It has to be that way," he said.

"If you have companies making moral judgments on what's good and bad, that worries me a lot," he said.

"I'm somewhat skeptical of slippery slope arguments. But, if you ban books that depict sex with dinosaurs, it doesn't take much before you ban books."

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