Internet companies have long operated under the principle that they are not responsible for what their users do with their services, aside from a few common-sense laws around child abuse, drug sales, and human trafficking, among other things. But in the wake of the deadly attack on a group protesting supporters of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend, that might be changing.
Last night domain registration company GoDaddy gave Daily Stormer, a web publication of sorts dedicated to promoting a racist agenda, 24 hours to move its site to another registrar following the publication of an article that attacked Heather Heyer, who was killed Saturday by a white supremacist, in vulgar and obscene terms. Google rejected Daily Stormer’s application for a domain registration earlier this morning, and Discord, which makes a chat app popular with gamers, announced later on Monday that it would shut down the altright.com server on its services and ban accounts of some users it said were associated with the violence in Charlottesville.
Love. Not hate. pic.twitter.com/5xFpvHTuI2
— Discord (@discordapp) August 14, 2017
Domain registrars operate the system that lets web sites use letters and words to describe where their site is hosted (i.e., geekwire.com) instead of the long string of numbers that computers use to identify sites on the web. GoDaddy and Google are two of the most prominent companies authorized to register domains with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), but there are lots of others, and some them might be quite happy to take Nazi business.
But what about the companies that host this type of content on their servers?
If I worked at a company making cool tech, I wouldn't be ok with Nazis using the tools I built. Nice to see moral clarity gaining traction. https://t.co/GZjT2e8xJV
— Pierre Omidyar (@pierre) August 14, 2017
Google, Facebook, and Twitter have hesitated to ban those who have stoked racial vitriol in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as president, despite widespread calls to do so. And there are lots of smaller companies providing hosting services that may have no idea such content resides in their data centers.
And what about cloud services that white supremacists might be using to get out their message? Cloudflare was protecting Daily Stormer’s site from distributed denial-of-services attacks as of Monday afternoon, and has defended its approach toward controversial content in the past.
Following the Charlottesville attack, Cloudflare issued this statement, trying to have it both ways:
Cloudflare is aware of the concerns that have been raised over some sites that have used our network. We find the content on some of these sites repugnant. While our policy is to not comment on any user specifically, we are cooperating with law enforcement in any investigation.
Cloudflare is not the host of any website. Cloudflare is a network that provides performance and security services to more than 10% of all Internet requests. Cloudflare terminating any user would not remove their content from the Internet, it would simply make a site slower and more vulnerable to attack.
On the other hand, Zoho, which makes cloud-based workplace collaboration tools, announced that it was cutting off access to its services from the Daily Stormer.
We believe that The Daily Stormer has violated Zoho’s Terms of Service, so its access to Zoho’s services has been terminated. (2/2)
— Zoho (@zoho) August 14, 2017
Here’s the “to be fair” line: this is a very tricky situation for these companies. Deciding what should stay and what should go is harder than it looks: for every site that is as proudly awful as Daily Stormer, there are dozens that are more subtle with their message of white supremacy. Reddit alone is littered with some of the most fervent members of these groups, and Reddit has long taken a pro-speech stance when it comes to making decisions about the type of content that is allowed on its servers.
But the national mood might be changing after Charlottesville and earlier incidents in Portland and Kansas involving racial violence. Just as they have allowed many marginalized communities to find each other for support, modern tech platform companies have made it extremely easy for white supremacists to organize and disseminate their message.
If more people start dying in the streets as the result of confrontations between white supremacists and those bent on making sure their agenda never comes to pass, tech companies that enable white supremacists are going to find it harder and harder to justify their hands-off approach.