There are few things more challenging for a business than to find itself at the center of the story because of its proximity to tragedy. That's the challenge that faced network service provider Cloudflare over the weekend.

Cloudflare served as host and provided DDoS protection (which prevents denial of service attacks that crash websites) for the 8Chan forum website. That site has become a favorite of individuals planning to carry out these heinous mass shooting attacks as a place to post their "manifestos" and spread their hateful ideology.

This includes the attacks that we saw this past weekend in El Paso and in Dayton, Ohio (though there hasn't been any indication that the shooter in the Ohio attack had any connection to the site).

Early this morning, Cloudflare terminated its relationship with 8Chan, in an effort to separate itself from affiliation with a site known as a haven some of the more radical pockets of society. As a result, 8Chan went offline and was still unavailable at the time this column published. In reality, however, there's a good chance the site will find another company willing to provide services, despite its controversial status.

"We just sent notice that we are terminating 8Chan as a customer effective at midnight tonight Pacific Time. The rationale is simple: They have proven themselves to be lawless, and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths," Cloudflare's CEO, Matthew Prince,  said in a blog post early Monday.

More than public relations

Before you're tempted to chalk up the response to politics or public relations, consider for a minute how your business would respond when you found several of your core principles in conflict.

"We reluctantly tolerate content that we find reprehensible, but we draw the line at platforms that have demonstrated they directly inspire tragic events and are lawless by design," Prince continued. "8chan has crossed that line. It will therefore no longer be allowed to use our services."

Cloudflare was certainly in a uniquely difficult position. Its services directly enabled the 8Chan site to serve as host to the ideology that fueled more than one recent attack. In fact, in addition to the El Paso shooter's manifesto, the shooters involved in the Poway, California, and Christchurch, New Zealand, shootings posted rants forecasting their attacks. In both of those cases, Cloudflare chose not to take a stand.

I reached out to Cloudflare for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.

This time, even 8Chan's founder, Fredrick Brennan, who is no longer associated with the site, applauded the move.

Count the cost

The bigger lesson for entrepreneurs and established businesses alike is learning how to deal with a moral dilemma that presents itself after a tragedy. You have a responsibility as a leader to protect your principles, your people, your brand, and your other customers. 

The decisions you make have to count the cost to each of those stakeholders, and the reality is regardless of what you do--or even if you do nothing at all--there's a cost to your business in terms of what you believe and who you say you are.

Counting that cost isn't easy. Sometimes, while it might look like a no-brainer from the outside, ending a business relationship is a lot more complicated than simply terminating a controversial customer. Sometimes, it means laying off employees. Sometimes, it means betraying your brand by taking a stand that could be perceived as politically convenient.

Do the 'right' thing

That isn't to say you should do the wrong thing just because there's money or jobs involved, but it does mean that doing the right thing is sometimes far more nuanced and complicated that it might seem on the surface.

Clearly, Cloudflare believes that it should remain as neutral as possible when it comes to forms of speech it doesn't agree with, but draws a line when it comes to associating itself with hate. That seems reasonable, but it's not always an easy decision.

Prince went on to say that the company doesn't "take this decision lightly. Cloudflare is a network provider. In pursuit of our goal of helping build a better internet, we've considered it important to provide our security services broadly to make sure as many users as possible are secure, and thereby making cyber attacks less attractive--regardless of the content of those websites."

It won't be easy for your business, either. It won't be easy to balance the interests of your business, your people, and your principles. Just because it isn't easy doesn't mean you get to do nothing, because doing nothing is just as much a reflection of your brand's values. 

Published on: Aug 5, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.