Cloudflare’s traffic-filtering Gateway service is meant to protect browsers from accessing malware-ridden sites or obvious scams. Until this week, it also let customers filter out sites hosting queer content—a feature the company blamed on one of its third-party partners.
Aside from giving customers the chance to restrict access to particular sites associated with, say, spyware or spam, Cloudflare also gives customers the option to block sites in particular categories, like “gambling,” or “violence.” While snooping through the “society and lifestyle” sites that Cloudflare could filter out, London-based technologist Henry Cole found a subcategory of blockable sites that was just labeled “LGBTQ.” Naturally, he put the company on blast.
“Swap LGBTQ for Black or any other protected characteristic, and you can see that this really doesn’t look great on you,” he tweeted, sharing a screenshot of some of the categories Gateway was giving him.
To its credit, Cloudflare agreed “That shouldn’t have been the case. We’re removing now,” SVP Dane Knecht wrote back. When asked how that category ended up in their systems in the first place, Knecht responded that the company doesn’t “categorize sites internally,” and instead “[purchases] categorization from several external sources.”
This isn’t the first time those “external sources” ended up causing Cloudflare to inadvertently cut off access to sites dedicated to the LGBT community. About one year ago, the company rolled out a new traffic-filtering product specifically geared towards families, saying at the time that it was meant to keep kids from accidentally accessing “adult content.” As it turned out, that broad umbrella didn’t only cover sites hosting hardcore porn or educational content, but sites and services dedicated to supporting the gay community—including some that were aimed at gay and trans kids.
Again, Cloudflare quickly apologized and blamed the issue on an outside partner. “The data providers that we license content from have different categorizations. One of the providers has multiple ‘Adult Content’ categories.” the company wrote at the time.
The company went on to explain that one of these “adult content” categories mirrored the definition used by Google Safesearch, which pretty narrowly filters out explicit porn, or sites describing porn specifically. While Cloudflare initially intended to use this filter as part of their Families product, the company inadvertently chose a different “adult content” category that used a more liberal definition—blocking LGBT-related sites in the process.
“Going forward, we’ve set up a number of checks of known sites that should fall outside the intended categories, including many that we mistakenly listed today,” the company wrote. “We hope this will help catch mistakes like this in the future.”
Evidently, there’s still a ways to go. Cloudflare didn’t respond to a request for comment about what kind of third-party sources it was using, or whether this latest debacle will get the company to reconsider those partnerships moving forward. Considering the kind of stuff that does get through its filters, it’s certainly interesting seeing Cloudflare actually censoring things, for once.