Conservative and liberal digital rights activists have taken opposite sides in the debate over whether tech companies like Google should censor white nationalist websites like the Daily Stormer.
The influential left-leaning digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) criticized Google, domain registrar GoDaddy, and a cloud services provider for suspending support for The Daily Stormer, arguing to block one group, despite its distasteful speech, threatens all free speech online.
After white supremacy demonstrations in Charlottesville earlier this month, GoDaddy suspended the domain name registration for the site, which helped promote the rally that turned violent and resulted in the death of a counter-protester in Virginia just over a week ago.
Daily Stormer then tried moving the website to Google’s domain management service, where hours later it too dropped the website described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “dedicated to spreading anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, and white nationalism.” Cloudflare, hired by the site to distribute its content while repelling distributed denial of service cyberattacks, also suspended support last week. The Daily Stormer then sought publication on a Russian domain registrar but, less surprisingly, was removed by the Russian government, which employs a strict online censorship regime.
The moves by tech companies to essentially remove The Daily Stormer from the internet, alongside similar actions by Facebook and other social media platforms to suspend accounts espousing white supremacist views, now raise concerns about censorship in the U.S., according to both conservative and liberal digital rights groups.
“All fair-minded people must stand against the hateful violence and aggression that seems to be growing across our country,” a blog post on the EFF website reads. “But we must also recognize that on the internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with.”
According to EFF, the danger was best summed up by Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince, who, in a memo to employees, wrote, “I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.”
“We agree,” EFF said. “Protecting free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected. We do it because we believe that no one—not the government and not private commercial enterprises—should decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t.”
Prince later explained the decision to drop The Daily Stormer was personal, not the policy of Cloudflare and “an extremely dangerous decision in a lot of ways” (a primary factor, he explained, were comments on The Daily Stormer attributing Cloudflare’s continued business relationship with the site to support for the group’s views).
Other progressive groups have taken predictable stances. Even the American Civil Liberties Union, which has previously defended the free speech rights of neo-Nazi groups, vowed Monday to no longer defend “groups who effectively seek to use the First Amendment to wield it as a weapon of armed revolt,” ACLU attorney Lee Rowland told MSNBC Monday.
Other surprising opinions have come from groups like the center-right policy think tank TechFreedom. According to the group’s president Berin Szoka, tech companies have every right to give groups on the extreme right the boot.
“Google and Cloudflare had every right to refuse to manage the Daily Stormer’s domain name registration,” Szoka told InsideSources. “Cutting off service wasn’t ‘censorship,’ it was two private parties refusing to do business with another private party.”
While Szoka agrees we should guard against government pressuring private companies to silence unpopular speech, “that doesn’t mean internet intermediaries must cede all judgment, as some absolutists insist.”
“Call it ‘blocking’ if you must, but it’s part of the marketplace of ideas at work,” he said. “By and large, that marketplace will discipline how intermediaries exercise their editorial judgment. Free speech absolutists urging no blocking at all are also a part of that market, and will help to maintain a healthy balance that keeps blocking to edge cases, like outright Nazi content.”
Szoka suggested the courts should be the arbiters of issues like this, and that any other avenue for challenging censorship by domain name service providers was closed last year when the U.S. finalized plans to give up federal oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) last fall.
ICANN is the U.S.-based non-profit that oversees key internet infrastructure functions like assigning internet protocol (IP) addresses, overseeing domain names like .com and .org, and acting as the roadmap guiding devices to websites, all part of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within Commerce oversaw ICANN until their agreement, in place since the Clinton administration, expired last year as part of the Obama administration’s plan to cede control to the international community. Oversight now falls to a group of private global technology companies, which can hear proposals from a collection of governments including the U.S., Russia, and China.
“That ‘transition’ made it much, much harder to challenge the use of the DNS for censorship,” Szoka explained “because there is no longer any clear link to the U.S. government that aggrieved plaintiffs could use to establish state action, a prerequisite for any First Amendment claim.”
According to EFF, Google has also put the dailystormer.com domain in “client hold,” meaning the site’s operators can’t transfer the domain to another service.
“It’s unclear whether this is for a limited amount of time, or whether Google has decided to effectively take ownership of the dailystormer.com domain permanently,” the EFF post reads.
Szoka says that is “troubling,” but not for First Amendment reasons.
“If true, that could constitute a seizure of the Daily Stormer’s property,” he said. “It’s ultimately a question of property rights. Nazis don’t have a right to force anyone to register their domain name, but they certainly have a property right in the domain name — which means the right to try to find a registrar who will do business with them.”