CloudFlare refuses to sit at the kids’ table

“Punch above your weight” is Michelle Zatlyn’s motto. Zatlyn founded CloudFlare, an internet performance and security company, with Matthew Prince and Lee Holloway five years ago. Looking at the company’s record (it has been profitable since 2014), the motto seems to be working well for them.

Unlike Qwiki, the company they competed against at TechCrunch Battlefield in San Francisco in 2010, CloudFlare is still around and thriving. It now has 200 employees, has just raised $110 million from Google, Microsoft, Baidu, Qualcomm and Fidelity, and opened its 63rd data center in Manchester, UK.

CloudFlare also applies this motto to its approach to public policy. It got involved in policymaking and started building relationships with politicians around the globe as early as day three. In contrast, most startups today start paying attention to Internet rulemaking once confronted to regulatory obstacles. Early involvement is an attitude that increasingly makes sense, though.

CloudFlare organized a one-day Internet Summit to celebrate its 5th anniversary in San Francisco last September. At the event, former US Deputy CTO Nicole Wong explained that “the time for ignoring D.C. is closing. Technologists cannot ignore regulators any longer. Instead, they need to start showing muscles if they want a seat at the table, not the kids’ table, the adult table. Otherwise, the tech industry will get the policy it deserves.”

ca. 1934 --- Three children blowing out candles on birthday cake --- Image by © Condé Nast Archive/CORBIS

ca. 1934 — Three children blowing out candles on birthday cake — Image by © Condé Nast Archive/CORBIS

There is a lot on the table indeed. The US and Europe are drifting further apart on privacy and protection of personal data. Governments are increasing the pressure on tech companies to limit encryption and give law enforcement access to user data. Tensions remain on net neutrality and internet governance. Policymakers are struggling to address the changes brought about by the gig economy. The list goes on.

Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Cindy Cohn explained why coders, entrepreneurs and startups should have a dialogue with policymakers. Informing and explaining will make for better public policy. This is particularly true on encryption. Its technological aspects are not explained enough, which leads to misunderstandings. “Politicians believe that innovation can fix the problem, that a solution always exists. I believe in innovation, but also in math and math wins,” she stressed.

European policymakers are particularly hungry for insights from technologists. More than ever before, they are flocking to Silicon Valley and asking to visit the corporate headquarters of tech companies. They are especially interested in fast-growing startups with a strong job creation record. In Europe, “startups have more resonance – when they have a good story – and more influence, compared to the US, where big players dominate more,” according to Jonathan Zuck of the Apps Association (ACT), who organizes fly-ins of local entrepreneurs to Brussels and D.C.

But behind this enthusiasm, lawmakers and regulators often lack the technical background to foresee the consequences their decisions might have on end-users. There is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to bring that expertise to the table and help design common-sense policies that go beyond buzzwords, address actual problems and don’t overreach.

CloudFlare appears to be tackling this opportunity head-on. “Building good public policy is in the company’s DNA,” said Kenneth Carter, CloudFlare’s General Counsel, at the SEC2SV conference in September. In practice, this translates into a product development team that is very curious about policy and, therefore, mindful of the policy impact of its products. It also helps that CloudFlare’s CEO Matthew Prince used to be an attorney and still teaches Internet law.

The company’s engagement in domestic policy includes providing tools to black out sites during the SOPA debate, advising the FCC on net neutrality, participating to the UN’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and working with the OECD. CloudFlare’s Internet Summit was another way to contribute to ongoing policy debates. The event gathered leaders from government, business, advocacy groups, journalism and politics. The impressive lineup of speakers was asked to comment on the future of the internet over the next five years.

According to CloudFlare’s CEO, “five years from now the Internet will be dramatically different from what it is today. By connecting this distinguished group of leading technologists, we hope to assemble an outline of what the new Internet landscape will look like. By looking ahead together, we can all begin to prepare for the coming changes.”

CloudFlare may not have had all the answers at their summit. But, just by asking the questions, it positioned itself as a thought-leader on internet policy and a credible partner for regulators and lawmakers.

European entrepreneurs have also taken notice of the benefits of having early conversations with policymakers. UK-based financial tech leader TransferWise and French ride-sharing firm BlaBlaCar are just two among Europe’s new generation of startups that regularly address politicians at public debates. The timing is right: many rules that will define tomorrow’s internet are being written today. This is a chance to make sure the new framework is friendly for startups and sustainable for users and businesses.

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Photo credits: birthday – 1934, by Jhayne (Some Rights Reserved, BY-NC-SA 2.0)