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Tech workers protest Trump administration policies at a rally in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Ride-hailing giant Uber sent a message to its riders and drivers expressing outrage over the deadly white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., and support for a driver who kicked Nazis out of her car during the rally. In the letter, the company reiterated that drivers have a right to end rides at any time and pledged to ban users for discrimination.

“We were horrified by the neo-Nazi demonstration that took place in Charlottesville, which resulted in the loss of life of a young woman as well as two Virginia State Troopers responding to the protest,” the letter read, in part. “There is simply no place for this type of bigotry, discrimination, and hate.”

Uber is the latest in a series of big tech companies to contend with the actions and rhetoric of members of the “alt-right,” an umbrella term for a group that includes neo-Nazis, fringe conservatives, Ku Klux Klan members, and white nationalists. The controversy surrounding these groups culminated this morning with the departure of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, the former editor of alt-right publication Breitbart News. Update: Bannon returned to Breitbart on Friday and led its editorial meeting, according to The New York Times.

Technology plays a critical role in amplifying the voices of this community, helping it organize, and facilitating recruitment efforts. The Charlottesville flashpoint is forcing the tech industry to acknowledge that role and abandon its non-partisan dogma.

Discord, an anonymous chat platform that was originally targeted at gamers, has become a popular tool for the alt-right to communicate and organize. Initially, the Silicon Valley company chose not to intervene because the community wasn’t doing anything illegal. Discord changed course after members of the alt-right used its service to help organize the Charlottesville rally and discussed gathering at the funeral of the woman who was killed. Discord banned several of the biggest alt-right communities by taking down their servers, The New York Times reports.

Discord and Uber aren’t alone. GoDaddy shut down infamous neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer. Airbnb canceled reservations and deleted accounts of people visiting Charlottesville for the rally and CEO Brian Chesky issued a strong statement condemning bigotry. Before the Charlottesville rally, PayPal, GoFundMe, and Patreon began curbing the ability of alt-right members to raise cash.

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (Facebook Photo)

Twitter has banned accounts that use their platforms to amplify messages of intolerance and Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook is “watching the situation closely” and taking down posts that promote hate crimes and violence. The statement calls to mind another recent change to Facebook’s platform. In the wake of the presidential election, under fire for spreading fabricated news stories, Facebook launched a series of tools to curb the dissemination of false and misleading stories.

This snowballing corporate activism represents a shift for tech companies, which have lauded the internet as an unregulated incubator of free speech, community, and connection since its inception.

Protecting that openness is a stated goal of The Internet Association, an organization that lobbies on behalf of companies like Airbnb, Facebook, Google, Uber, and others tech titans.

But the gruesome scene in Charlottesville, and the hate groups that have become increasingly emboldened since the 2016 presidential election, are forcing these companies to take responsibility for the role they play in amplifying voices of intolerance. The question going forward is whether blocking access to individuals and groups based on their opinions, however inflammatory, runs contrary to the stated values of these companies.

When security startup CloudFlare cut off Daily Stormer this week, CEO Matthew Prince noted that it ran counter to the company’s policies was “an extremely dangerous decision in a lot of ways.”

“I think that we as the internet need to have a conversation about where the right place for content restriction is…but there was no way we could have that conversation until we resolved this particular issue,” Prince told The Verge.

The current political climate means the relatively new tech industry now has to reckon with an old cliché: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. It’s impossible for them to remain neutral when their products play a vital role in organizing and magnifying movements that promote violence and intolerance.

This new moral standard also means the tech industry has an increasingly thin line to walk. Progressives expect bold language and action from these companies when their products are used to promote prejudice. Conservatives worry that the tech industry will use its Herculean power to promote a liberal agenda.

As tech leaders acknowledge their power in public discourse and become more vocal on issues like hate speech, immigration and climate change, they face a political tightrope and run the risk of alienating users on both sides.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted this week in the wake of the moves by various tech giants:

But we strongly believe that what GoDaddy, Google, and Cloudflare did here was dangerous. That’s because, even when the facts are the most vile, we must remain vigilant when platforms exercise these rights. Because Internet intermediaries, especially those with few competitors, control so much online speech, the consequences of their decisions have far-reaching impacts on speech around the world. And at EFF we see the consequences first hand: every time a company throws a vile neo-Nazi site off the Net, thousands of less visible decisions are made by companies with little oversight or transparency. Precedents being set now can shift the justice of those removals. Here’s what companies and individuals should watch for in these troubling times.

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