The internet has changed the world in countless ways over the last 23 years, and we’re only beginning to grapple with the impact of some of those changes. They have created huge opportunities and unprecedented challenges, and Cloudflare is sitting right in the middle of that intersection.
About a year after he made a difficult decision to kick a paying customer — albeit a neo-Nazi customer — off his company’s services, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince seemed at ease with that decision at the GeekWire Cloud Tech Summit last week, yet thoughtful about its ramifications for his company and the world at large. The web is being used in ways no one could have fathomed back in the 1990s, and it might be time to start thinking about different ways to deliver the services at the heart of nearly every advanced economy on the planet, he said.
Cloudflare provides security and reliability services for web applications around the world, using a unique network design that essentially absorbs malicious or well-intentioned spikes in traffic and redirects that traffic away from its intended target. If that traffic represents a surge in interest in your product or service, it will deliver the traffic back to you, and if it was the work of someone trying to force you offline, it will redirect it away from your site.
“We can get data from any point on earth to any other point on earth faster, more securely, more reliability, and more efficiently — usually meaning cheaper — than anyone else,” Prince said.
The tricky part is figuring out what to do with customers who sign up for a basic version of its service and use its services to protect racist or defamatory content. The Daily Stormer was able to stay online for months despite attacks trying to bring down its site, but after Heather Heyer was killed protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last August, and the Daily Stormer started claiming that Cloudflare was supporting its movement by keeping the service up, Prince had seen enough.
He remains somewhat conflicted about this issue in general, if not that particular case, when it comes to private companies making determinations whether legal content on the internet should be entitled to protection. And after a year of talks with lots of different groups, he’s at least glad to have played a role bringing these issues to the fore, especially as a growing white supremacist movement emerges from the dark.
“We needed to have a conversation about what the role of deep infrastructure companies like Cloudflare is” when it comes to determining what you’re allowed to see on the internet, Prince said.
Another conversation is evolving around the wild-and-wooly cryptocurrency market, or as Prince put it, “one of the first times that ‘hack something, get money’ has been that directly aligned.”
The DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks that Cloudflare made its reputation defending have faded a bit as Cloudflare and other cloud service providers implement protection for their customers. But they are being replaced by a increasing number of sophisticated attacks against nascent cryptocurrency companies, and since many of them use Cloudflare, “we’ve had a front-row seat” to some of this new action, he said.
Cloudflare, which has been around since 2009, has raised $182 million in funding, with the last raise coming in 2014. The company is generating “well north” of $100 million in revenue with 84 percent gross margins, but it is being run at breakeven — like many growing private companies — as it invests in its equipment and marketing, Prince said.
The company has been hinting that it wants to do more interesting things with that network such as poking at cloud infrastructure companies like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure with its Cloudflare Workers technology, which gives developers a way to build lightweight serverless computing applications that run across Cloudflare’s network.
“I’m proud of the fact that we have built a company that can be a standalone independent long-term company,” Prince said. “We’re not playing this to get bought.”