- By Elizabeth Dwoskin, Tracy Jan The Washington Post
The push for Internet businesses to remove hateful speech spread to an influential corner of the tech industry on Monday as Web registration service GoDaddy delisted a prominent neo-Nazi site in the wake of violent clashes over the weekend in Charlottesville.
The move by GoDaddy, which registers domain names for 71 million websites globally, is the latest and perhaps the broadest indication of how far technology companies are willing to go in response to public outcry that their services are being used to facilitate racism and white supremacy. Although Silicon Valley companies have long resisted calls to police the content they host, in the current political climate they are under more pressure than ever to take a stand — and appear to be bowing at least to some of it.
"This may very well indicate that the sense of responsibility among tech companies is deepening," said Susan Benesch, director of the Dangerous Speech Project, a nonprofit group that researches the intersection of harmful online content and free speech. "They are under gigantic pressure to solve this problem, and they are reacting as they never have before."
On Monday, GoDaddy kicked the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer off its systems, citing company policies that prohibit websites from speech that incites "violence against people."
GoDaddy said the move was in response to an appeal from a Twitter user who called attention late Sunday to an online post by Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin who disparaged Heather Heyer, 32, who was killed Saturday in Charlottesville, police say, when a man plowed into a crowd with his vehicle.
The post attacked Heyer's appearance, used a slur to describe her as promiscuous and said she was "childless." "Most people are glad she is dead," Anglin wrote.
The Daily Stormer then transferred its registration to Google, prompting an immediate outcry and a swift response from the Silicon Valley giant, which cut off the white supremacy site, citing policy violations.
A lesser-known tech start-up, Cloudflare, continued to service the Daily Stormer.
Liberal activists and even some conservatives praised GoDaddy's decision in the wake of Saturday's attack, saying the move represented a shift by tech corporations to take more responsibility.
"It's well past time for platforms that already exercise some discretion to stop pretending they are just dumb pipes that allow all types of garbage to flow through them," said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University. "It seems to me a significant move in a direction that is long overdue."
But the American Civil Liberties Union said that consumers should not be so quick to condemn the display of even "the most vile white supremacist speech."
People are relieved when speech they disagree with is removed, but the censorship can come back to bite them when they find themselves on the receiving end, said Lee Rowland, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberty Union's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project.The First Amendment has enabled Americans throughout the country's history to challenge the status quo, because "we are able to reveal what people really think and counter it," she added.
Other experts said the move to regulate speech puts Silicon Valley in an even deeper bind that is far from resolved. Technology companies are becoming the reluctant gatekeepers and facilitators of political expression for much of the world. Facebook now serves one third of the world's population monthly; GoDaddy is the largest domain registration service.
"The traditional view was that if you are a social media company, as long as people aren't advocating violence, you should let them use your platform because censorship is a slippery slope," said Mike Cernovich, a popular conservative media personality. "There are always ideas people have on the left and right [that] are gong to offend somebody, but do we really want corporations taking sides?"
In a statement, GoDaddy spokesman Dan Race said that the web-hosting company generally errs on the side of protecting free speech, but that it had determined that the Daily Stormer had "crossed the line and encouraged and promoted violence."
"We generally do not take action on complaints that would constitute censorship of content," the statement said. "In instances where a site goes beyond the mere exercise of these freedoms, however, and crosses over to promoting, encouraging, or otherwise engaging in violence against any person, we will take action."
GoDaddy said that it had received complaints about the Daily Stormer before and that the complaints hadn't warranted action. But as recently as July, the site had promised to "track down" the parents, siblings, spouses and children of CNN staff members. Daily Stormer also has posted the names and contact information for a Jewish family in Whitefish, Mont., describing the 12-year-old son with slurs for Jewish and gay people.
In an email to The Post, Anglin indicated that he was working with an unidentified agent in Mongolia to "reset my server so I can restore from backups." The site is hosted there, he said, "because we've been kicked off of so many hosts." An email to obtain further comment was not returned.
In a statement, Cloudflare said it was "aware of the concerns" about some websites but would not comment on specific sites.
GoDaddy's decision comes on the heels of largely reactive moves by tech giants to crack down on hateful content. After nearly a year of pressure from activists, payment processor PayPal and Patreon recently canceled accounts for some right-wing figures.The move prompted some neo-Nazi and white nationalist leaders to turn to a new crowdfunding site, Hatreon, which says it does not police speech.
Meanwhile, Google recently apologized to major advertisers after their content appeared on hate and white supremacist sites and promised to do better. Facebook also has blocked several far-right pages in recent weeks, while Airbnb stopped neo-Nazis from using the site to book lodging for their rally in Charlottesville.
Yet as they move further into policing speech and expression, Silicon Valley companies are becoming vulnerable to accusations of inconsistency and arbitrary behavior. They are blocking some sites in response to public pressure, but thousands of others remain.
And as they face more calls to scan their services and enforce their policies more proactively, they may be forced to hire thousands more content monitors and wade further into judgment calls they don't want to make.
Already, the companies are targets of growing amounts of right- and left-wing ire. In conservative circles, pulling people's accounts adds fuel to the belief that these platforms are run by liberals who want to curtail free speech. The conservative news website Breitbart is running daily feature stories attacking Google for suppressing free speech, a response to the firing of a Google employee who wrote a manifesto attacking the company's diversity policies. Some conservatives described PayPal and Patreon's actions as a declaration of war, and vowed to give alternative services their business.
Unlike media companies, technology companies are shielded by laws that do not hold them responsible for content that appears on their platforms.
Even as companies have taken down certain sites or blocked certain accounts, they have insisted that they do not want to be "arbiters of truth" — a phrase used by Twitter and Facebook executives recently to describe their dilemma.
"The more they police, the more they take on collective responsibility, which they fear can lead to legal responsibility," said Benesch, of the Dangerous Speech Project.