While I was offline, there were more developments stemming from the violence in Charlottesville, VA. I already talked about the planned protests by white supremacists, but I plan on talking about more of the details in the coming days. But one caveat of this discussion involves free speech, which I will discuss now.
I was made aware of this issue because of an article on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website. As the writers of this article point out, the actions of the services involved set an alarming precedent.
The Daily Stormer, the Neo-Nazi website which was used to help organize the event in Charlottesville, became embroiled in a controversy involving freedom of speech.
Sometime after the attack in Charlottesville, the writers at that site insulted Heather Heyer, the woman who died when she was run over in Charlottesville in a heartless, disgusting article.
Days after that article, The website was essentially taken from the open Internet by GoDaddy and Google. GoDaddy, a domain hosting service, kicked the Daily Stormer off its service and Google cancelled the website’s Internet registration.
This move forced the Daily Stormer to move to the Dark Web. The managers of the website took to twitter on Tuesday, August 15, to tell their followers how they could access the website after the takedown.
What Was the Social Media Response?
After GoDaddy and Google revoked normal access to the Daily Stormer and gaming chat app Discord banned users connected to the Charlotteville attack, Facebook felt the pressure to more aggressively go after hate groups on its platform. The page for Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” was among several recently shut down by FB. The platform also removed links to the article insulting Heather Heyer.
In addition, Reddit got banned one of its subreddits, r/physical_removal, due to violations of its terms of service. (As I’ve heard, users on that subreddit were posting threats to real people.)
What Is CloudFlare’s Stance on Free Speech?
In addition to losing support from GoDaddy and Google, the Daily Stormer lost the services of CloudFlare. CloudFlare is a content distribution network which hides websites’ real hosts by distributing those websites through larger networks. The move came shortly after the Russian relaunch of the Daily Stormer.
After the decision, CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince published a blog post on the company’s website to explain his reasoning.
In a blog post, Prince discussed the reasons why his service terminated its contract with the white supremacist website Daily Stormer. Prince said the number one reason was because the managers behind the DS claimed CloudFlare were allies. While those behind the proxy service were long uncomfortable with their arrangement — and they had been accosted by hackers who wanted to conduct a DDoS attack on DS — the forum post claiming solidarity was the tipping point.
Prince said the decision he made wasn’t easy. However, he said this move opened up a discussion and his main focus was due process, which he felt trumped freedom of speech.
What Do I Think About All This?
Overall, I am not bothered by the actions of social media platforms and forums. Those websites are like clubs and free speech isn’t exactly guaranteed. However, I am alarmed by the actions of GoDaddy and others.
While many people, including me, are appalled by the existence of the Daily Stormer and its content, what GoDaddy, Google, and Cloudflare did was dangerous. This might open up the companies to lawsuits, encourage other companies to do the same — or even worse, encourage governments to apply pressure to these types of companies to shut down any website deemed offensive. While many people might have no trouble with hateful websites being shut down, harmless websites could be targeted in this way, too.
No one who made the decision to cut off the Daily Stormer used normal protocol to do so. Even if we don’t like websites with racist missions or other missions in which people promote disgusting behavior, this should concern all of us because as that website was shut down, decent websites could suffer the same fate.
For example, what if a fledgling news website ran an unpopular opinion only to be shut down because of government pressure? What if a website was shut down because it presented factual, yet unflattering information about a government or corporation? Wouldn’t that scare most of us?
Prince even admitted that this move was dangerous because it could open the door for governments to request other sites to be taken down in much the same matter. (Services like those CloudFlare offers are so important that websites will be vulnerable to attacks without them, a risk many site owners don’t want to take.)
Do You Agree with These Companies’ Decisions?
While I also think websites like the Daily Stormer fit better on the Dark Web (if anywhere at all), I don’t know if I completely agree with Matthew Prince. I also understand that companies like GoDaddy and Google came under enormous pressure, but I am concerned about the effects this could have on websites whose owners have good intentions.
Brandom, Russell. “The Daily Stormer just lost the most important company defending it.” The Verge. 16 Aug 2017. Web. <https://www.theverge.com/2017/8/16/16157710/cloudflare-daily-stormer-drop-russia-hate-white-nationalism>.
Cohn, Cindy, Malcolm, Jeremy and O’Brien, Danny. “Fighting Neo-Nazis and the Future of Free Expression.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. 17 Aug 2017. Web. <https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/08/fighting-neo-nazis-future-free-expression>.
Finkle, Jim. “Neo-Nazi group moves to ‘Dark Web’ after website goes down.” Reuters. 15 Aug 2017. Web. <http://www.reuters.com/article/uk-virginia-protests-daily-stormer-idUKKCN1AV1I0>.
Jain, Rishabh. “Charlottesville Attack: Facebook, Reddit, Google And GoDaddy Shut Down Hate Groups.” International Business Times. 16 Aug 2017. Web. <http://www.ibtimes.com/charlottesville-attack-facebook-reddit-google-godaddy-shut-down-hate-groups-2579027>.
Prince, Matthew. “Why We Terminated Daily Stormer.” Cloudflare. 16 Aug 2017. Weblog. <https://blog.cloudflare.com/why-we-terminated-daily-stormer/>.
2 thoughts on “Free Speech for All, Even on the Internet?”
I saw this on FB and thought I’d (a) read the article — always a good idea before commenting — and (b) comment here as well as on FB.
I don’t see GoDaddy and other hosting cites and social media platforms as being any different than the bakeries and florists — why is it ALWAYS a bakery or florist? — who want to refuse service to gay people. The dividing line between the two is the status of the people who are having the speech curtailed.
Rights are guaranteed by the Constitution to people, and the courts have interpreted this as being identifiable groups generally along the lines of “you were born this way, this is not a choice.” Thus, businesses can have signs saying “no shirts, no shoes, no service,” but not “no blacks.” Business operate in the public market place. They cannot discriminate against classes of people. They can regulate who they will serve. Gays are now a class of people who cannot be discriminated against. Neo-Nazis and Klansmen are not. Gays do not have a choice. Neo-Nazis and Klansmen do.
The courts will sort this kind of thing out in very much the same way they have gay marriage, interracial marriage, Klan marches and rallies, refusing services to gay people, redlining, and other issues of who gets service from private business and local government. Many of the same guidelines will be used.
With Niel Gorsuch on the Supreme Court and the age of several other justices, a continuation of the trends that we’ve seen are very much in doubt. But, these internet service companies and social media platforms are very much within their rights as businesses to manage the activities of their users.
What may also cause of bit of a problem is if social media and internet service companies are viewed as utilities. Then they become necessities like water, gas, electric, and telephone services, and they cannot be denied. It will be interesting to see how net neutrality impacts all of this because this is the issue it brings up.
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Thank you very much for this comment.
Yeah, as I said on FB, my first concern revolves around the legal aspects of this situation. You have already hit on a few solid points, including net neutrality and the Supreme Court’s potential rule in all of this. If the owner of the Daily Stormer decides to push this in court, all these factors will likely be brought up. Alternatively, there might be other website owners who decide to bring cases against GoDaddy or services like it.
On one hand, it is exciting to see what the courts think about the boundaries of free speech. On the other hand, it is scary to think about the prospect of the courts limiting free speech if they interpret the laws a certain way.
In any event, as we move forward, I hope the courts keep this principle in mind: One person’s rights end where another person’s rights begin. Thus, it should be legal for hate speech to be curtailed to an extent, especially when it reaches the level of making death threats or developing a plan for genocide.
When the speech is aimed at action, I think it is perfectly fair to monitor the people making such comments. In that regard, what Reddit did in shutting down r/physical_removal was just.
Additionally, there are organizations like the ACLU which are rethinking whether they should represent white supremacists. As I mentioned in a previous News Roundup, the ACLU represented the person who organized the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA. However, state chapters, namely one in California, say in the future, the organization should steer clear of people like that. They have a point since people who attended the rally talked about bringing weapons beforehand, so they wanted violence.
There are a lot of aspects to this, but I hope most speech, even if it’s controversial or it angers people, is still protected in the end. We need to have healthy debates, meaning they should be as open as reasonably possible.