When the Israeli army and Hamas trade virtual blows in cyberspace, or when hacker groups like Anonymous rise from the digital ether, or when WikiLeaks dumps a trove of classified documents, some see a lawless Internet.
But Matthew Prince, chief executive at CloudFlare, a little-known Internet start-up that serves some of the Web’s most controversial characters, sees a business opportunity.
Founded in 2010, CloudFlare markets itself as an Internet intermediary that shields Web sites from distributed denial-of-service, or DDoS, attacks, the crude but effective weapon that hackers use to bludgeon Web sites until they go dark. The 40-person company claims to route up to 5 percent of all Internet traffic through its global network.
Prince calls his company the “Switzerland” of cyberspace — assiduously neutral and open to all comers. But just as companies like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have faced profound questions about the balance between free speech and openness on the Internet and national security and law enforcement concerns, CloudFlare’s business has posed another thorny question: what kinds of services, if any, should an American company be allowed to offer designated terrorists and cyber criminals?
CloudFlare’s unusual position at the heart of this debate came to the fore last month, when the Israel Defense Forces sought help from CloudFlare after its Web site was struck by attackers based in Gaza. The IDF was turning to the same company that provides those services to Hamas and the al-Quds Brigades, according to publicly searchable domain information. Both Hamas and al-Quds, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, are designated by the US as terrorist groups.
Under the USA Patriot Act, US firms are forbidden from providing “material support” to groups deemed foreign terrorist organizations. But what constitutes material support — like many other facets of the law itself — has been subject to intense debate.
CloudFlare’s dealings have attracted heated criticism in the blogosphere from both Israelis and Palestinians, but Prince defended his company as a champion of free speech.
“Both sides have an absolute right to tell their story,” said Prince, a 38-year old former lawyer. “We’re not providing material support for anybody. We’re not sending money, or helping people arm themselves.”
Prince noted that his company only provides defensive capabilities that enable Web sites to stay online.
“We can’t be sitting in a role where we decide what is good or what is bad based on our own personal biases,” he said. “That’s a huge slippery slope.”
Many US agencies are customers, but so is WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing organization. CloudFlare has consulted for many Wall Street institutions, yet also protects Anonymous, the “hacktivist” group associated with the Occupy movement.
Prince’s stance could be tested at a time when some lawmakers in the United States and Europe, armed with evidence that militant groups rely on the Web for critical operations and recruitment purposes, have pressured Internet companies to censor content or cut off customers.
Last month, conservative political lobbies, as well as seven lawmakers led by Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas, urged the FBI to shut down the Hamas Twitter account. The account remains active; Twitter declined to comment.