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US companies like CloudFlare have been criticised for providing services to websites containing jihadist material (Jihad-e-informacion)

Web hosting and cybersecurity firms in the US and UK have responded to revelations provided by the hacktivist group Anonymous that their services are being used by Islamic State (Isis) to spread online propaganda.

A list of pro-Isis websites and their corresponding web hosts compiled by members of the Anonymous faction GhostSec included Google, Yahoo! and GoDaddy. According to GhostSec, "by far the largest offender" was CloudFlare.

Speaking with IBTimes UK, co-founder and CEO of CloudFlare, Matthew Prince, said that his company would not be blocking its service to websites listed, as it would mean submitting to "mob rule".

"Individuals have decided that there is content they disagree with but the right way to deal with this is to follow the established law enforcement procedures. There is no society on Earth that tolerates mob rule because the mob is fickle," Prince said.

The question of internet censorship

CloudFlare does not itself host the content of the websites, meaning blocking its service would not actually make the content go away. The service instead protects sites from malicious traffic and cyber threats, meaning without it websites would be more vulnerable to attacks from Anonymous.

"We're the plumbers of the internet," Prince said. "We make the pipes work but it's not right for us to inspect what is or isn't going through the pipes. If companies like ours or ISPs (internet service providers) start censoring there would be an uproar. It would lead us down a path of internet censors and controls akin to a country like China."

Since the list was released several of the companies responsible for hosting the controversial content have removed the websites, including UK-based Web Hosting UK (WHUK).

Frank Tighe, CTO of WHUK's parent company Hyperslice, has said that pro-Isis content breaches WHUK's terms of service - which states that content must not contain any material that is obscene, offensive, hateful or inflammatory - and that the websites listed by GhostSec have since been removed.

"We take matters like this very seriously and actively remove websites such as this, that breach our acceptable use policy as soon as we are made aware of them," told IBTimes UK.

"Whilst we try to ensure that all our customers adhere to our acceptable use policy at all times, we host hundreds of thousands of websites and logistically speaking it's extremely difficult for us to keep track of the content of all of them all of the time."

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Anonymous has criticised CloudFlare for not blocking its service to pro-Isis websites CC

Members of Anonymous have criticised CloudFlare's position on the matter, who told this publication that they wanted CloudFlare to be held accountable for their "less than ethical business practices".

The criticism against CloudFlare includes claims that it is accepting blood money, however Prince believes that the sites listed use the firm's free service and that its position is not financially motivated.

A campaign has even been set up against CloudFlare accusing it of encouraging illegality by allowing criminals to hide behind their servers.

"I don't approve of this because DoS attacks are illegal," Daniel Brandt, founder of CrimeFlare, told IBTimes UK. "On the other hand, CloudFlare is notoriously arrogant and unresponsive to legitimate complaints, and I understand why some Op Isis supporters feel that they have to resort to this."

Attacks from both sides

CloudFlare has previously faced criticism for protecting websites associated with Anonymous, however Prince asserts that their service is only removed if told to do so by a court of law.

"The irony is there is no organisation that we have had more requests to terminate services for than the hacking group Anonymous, including from government officials - which we have not done without following the proper legal process," Prince said.

CloudFlare claims to have not received a single law enforcement request to block any of the sites listed by Ghostsec.

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An image produced by an Isis supporter shared on Twitter @iraqnow15

Intelligence agencies have instead criticised online campaigns against Isis, such as #OpISIS and #OpIceISIS, by claiming that taking down websites and social media accounts associated with the jihadist group is shutting down a key source of intelligence gathering.

This argument has been frequently dismissed by Anonymous, who claim that the vast majority of these accounts and websites are used to spread propaganda with the hope of recruiting more people to its cause - not to communicate valuable military strategic information.

Whether or not sites are removed, the methods employed by Isis and its supporters mean that the content almost inevitably reappears somewhere on the internet. The question of whether or not it should be policed remains contentious, though the enormity of the task is recognised from all sides.

"Playing whack-a-mole with content can be a real challenge," Prince said. "There are an almost infinite number of hosting services these people can use. It's very difficult to make content go away."