Big Tech, the "alt-right" and the unknown future of the internet

With online hate translating into real-world violence, tech companies wrestle with a new sense of responsibility

Published August 21, 2017 5:00AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Chet Strange/Salon)
(Getty/Chet Strange/Salon)

In the aftermath of the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that led to the death of a woman and two police officers, large technology firms have been reevaluating the role their platforms may play in enabling offensive or even dangerous content.

There’s no question that the neo-fascist “alt-right” movement has leveraged various web services and social platforms to grow into something larger and more radical than what "alt-right" types often call “White Nationalism 1.0,” the network of homespun websites and mimeographed handouts that preceded it.

"This is an issue that spans Silicon Valley, unfortunately, and is only now beginning to be addressed,” Heidi Beirich, who leads the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Salon. “Many companies have sections that expressly prohibit hate and abuse. The problem has always been about their willingness to enforce them.”

“More companies should take note now, before the next Charlottesville,” she added.

Deciding what types of content their services may be used to propagate is fast becoming a difficult question for many tech firms.

Even before “Unite the Right,” Facebook decided to remove the event page that organizers had set up the day before it took place. Airbnb announced that it was banning white nationalists from renting temporary housing. Since the rally, PayPal has canceled the accounts of several far-right websites, as has Apple. Discord, a group-chat platform originally targeted at computer gamers, announced that it had closed down several "alt-right" communities after they were used to coordinate event logistics.

One of those Discord chat rooms was used by The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi blog that has become the focal point for most of the general-interest media discussion about the "alt-right" and Big Tech. The site, created by former 4chan troll Andrew Anglin in 2013, has long been the target of anti-hate groups like SPLC, particularly after it was discovered that Dylann Roof appears to have been a reader and commenter before he committed mass murder in a South Carolina black church in 2015.

After Charlottesville, however, the number of web users calling for action against the site increased by several orders of magnitude. Web domain registrar GoDaddy came under heavy pressure to cancel The Stormer’s domain by anti-Nazi social media users.

Within hours of the complaints, GoDaddy informed the Nazi blog that it had 24 hours to find a different registrar for its domain. The Stormer’s eviction set the site on a desperate search for a company that would accommodate it, including unsuccessful online stints in China and Russia. For most of last week, the site could only be read via Tor, an encrypted and anonymous network that requires special software to access, which is used by people in authoritarian governments but also by cyber criminals.

After taking aim at GoDaddy, Anglin’s critics then turned their complaints to Cloudflare, the network infrastructure and security company that stands in front of websites to protect them from hackers and help them deal with large influxes of traffic. Though not nearly as famous as Google or Microsoft, the company has acquired a fair number of dedicated critics who accuse Cloudflare of enabling crime, terrorism and racism. According to Cloudflare’s detractors, it is perfectly willing to help unsavory groups and individuals when doing so is profitable business.

Last Wednesday, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince decided to terminate The Daily Stormer’s account. Anglin told his fans about this via a message posted to Gab, a Twitter clone. The Stormer editor confirmed that the account was his, in a message to Salon from a known email address.

In an interview with Salon a few hours after he had booted the Stormer, Prince said that he finally decided to cancel Anglin’s account after reading statements on the Stormer's forum implying that Cloudflare was supportive of neo-Nazism.

“The thing this morning that really did it was sort of making affirmative claims that somehow we supported their ideology,” he said.

Prince also alleged that readers of the Nazi blog had harassed Cloudflare staff members in the past.

“They did some things which we thought crossed the line in terms of harassment of our staff and others,” Prince said. He declined to provide details when asked, however.

Earlier this year, ProPublica published a story saying that Cloudflare was forwarding the personal information of individuals who had complained to the company about improper usage of its services to whatever website they had reported. According to ProPublica, this resulted in several individuals receiving threatening messages as a result. After the report was published, Cloudflare changed its policies to allow anonymous complaints.

According to Prince, the Stormer generated nowhere near the amount of revenue for Cloudflare that would compensate for the amount of trouble it created.

“At some point, if you’re enough of a pain in the ass then we’re just going to say, ‘You know what? It’s not worth having you on,’” he said. Prince added that Cloudflare’s protection of unpopular blogs and forums has led to lost business from organizations who did not want to be hosted on the same network.

In an email exchange with Salon, Anglin denied any knowledge of harassment of Cloudflare employees. He also claimed that he had never implied that the network operator supported his beliefs.

“That is absolutely just made up,” the Nazi blogger wrote. “I am 99% sure I have not mentioned CF at all since the Charlottesville rally, and if I did it was simply to say that I think they will hold because they have a total free speech policy. What they are saying is just a lie to justify silencing speech. Even if I had joked about ‘they must be secret Nazis,’ that would still just be joking around, and protected speech.”

As of this writing, Cloudflare has not responded to Anglin’s denial.

The question of what limits on content internet companies should maintain within their ecosystems is particularly challenging, according to Prince. In his comments to Salon and in a blog post, the Cloudflare executive argued that the United States and other countries have mostly ignored critical questions about the role of private companies as the de facto arbiters of speech in a world that’s connected via networks that are not publicly owned.

Consistent with past remarks he’s made on the subject of censorship and private citizens, Prince said he believed that governments should determine what types of content network companies like his should permit.

“That seems like the right place for those decisions to be made,” Prince told Salon. “It becomes very risky when you have what is effectively a cabal of tech CEOs. I have my own political beliefs and perspective. I believe that the content that was on The Daily Stormer site is reprehensible and offensive and disgusting. But I’m not sure that my political beliefs should be determining what is and is not allowed. I wasn’t elected. There was no process that put me in place.”

At the same time, Prince believes that web companies that are trying to sustain a community of users — sites such as Twitter or Facebook — are on more solid ground to remove content they believe violates community standards.

"In a not-so-distant future, if we're not there already, it may be that if you're going to put content on the Internet you'll need to use a company with a giant network like Cloudflare, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, or Alibaba,” Prince wrote in his blog post.

“Without a clear framework as a guide for content regulation, a small number of companies will largely determine what can and cannot be online.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group specializing in the internet, released an editorial on Thursday condemning web companies for terminating the Stormer's accounts.

"We strongly believe that what GoDaddy, Google, and Cloudflare did here was dangerous," the organization said in an essay credited to executive director Cindy Cohn, senior global policy analyst Jeremy Malcolm and international director Danny O'Brien.

They continued: "If the entities that run the domain name system started choosing who could access or add to them based on political considerations, we might well face a world where every government and powerful body would see itself as an equal or more legitimate invoker of that power."

Slate technology writer Will Oremus agrees, suggesting that while left-leaning activists may feel triumphant about getting the Stormer and other sites kicked off the web, they ought to consider the larger implications of asking for network-level content restrictions.

“The distinction between the Daily Stormer and an antifa site, or even a Black Lives Matter site, might seem clear as day to those urging GoDaddy to intervene against the former,” he wrote in a column last week. “Yet if our president himself finds them equivalent, it isn’t hard to imagine a private tech-infrastructure firm deciding to ban the latter along with the former.”

For his part, Anglin complains that the systematic dismantling of his online presence has made him an “unperson.” He also suggested that his site would not be the last one targeted for removal from the internet for expressing unpopular opinions.

Anglin has addressed similar issues before, such as after he was banned from PayPal in 2015. “One would think that banning a person from using a service because of their belief system is a clear violation of civil rights legislation, but apparently PayPal is not concerned,” he wrote at the time.

He continued: “I understand that people take issue with the civil rights laws themselves — I obviously do — but if PayPal is not allowed to deny service to people who are Black or gay or worship satan, it cannot be tolerated that they would be allowed to deny service to a White man who believes Whites have a right to exist.”

Freedom of speech is not the real issue, however, according to Brandi Collins, a campaign director at Color of Change, one of many left-leaning groups that has been pressuring Silicon Valley to clamp down on hate sites.

“These companies set a precedent for not working with hate sites years ago when they cut off mug-shot extortion sites," Collins told Salon. "This has not been a free speech issue for these companies in the past, and it isn’t one today. They are punting, clear and simple.”

Regardless of where tech’s top firms decide to draw the line, their decisions may not ultimately matter, however, as an alternative web ecosystem catering to free speech absolutists and "alt-right" sympathizers is already beginning to emerge.

“We WILL have corporations taking sides on free speech . . . so we must build our own corporations, that will take our side,” tweeted Pax Dickinson, the former CTO of Business Insider who was fired in 2013 after his racist viewpoints were exposed. On Wednesday, Dickinson said he would launch his own domain registrar when and if he could raise enough capital to do so. Several other "alt-right" technology firms (who informally call themselves “alt-tech”) have been launching copies of such services as Patreon, PayPal and Wikipedia.

Gab, the Twitter clone to which Anglin retreated after being banned from Cloudflare and most DNS services, said on Tuesday that it had raised more than $1 million to expand its operations. The company’s press release making the announcement was illustrated by a meme of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg supposedly typing “shut it down,” a variant of a common anti-Semitic meme. On Twitter, the company was even more ecstatic: "1 million dollars raised by THE PEOPLE to make speech free again and say FUCK YOU Silicon Valley elitist trash. Thank you all!!!!!!!!"

In an interview, Gab's chief communication officer Utsav Sanduja said the company was not anti-Semitic and that the Zuckerberg meme was nothing more than a joke.

"For us, we're ambivalent, we don't care whatsoever," Sanduja said. "Our site truly is about free speech. And the beautiful part about free speech is that people are allowed to disagree with horrendous views, with deplorable views, with views that may be seen as contentious with civil society."

He continued: "We're of the opinion that when you start banning users and removing them off the internet, you will send them to the dark web where there is real criminality."

Not everyone appears to be convinced by Gab's claims of nobility. On Thursday, Google banned Gab's app from its Play Store for allegedly violating its "hate speech policy." Apple has never allowed Gab's program into its App Store. Gab is a Cloudflare customer, however.

The Daily Stormer, meanwhile, returned to the regular web on Friday, by way of a .lol domain and under the shield of BitMitigate, a Cloudflare competitor.

“We are offering protection to the Daily Stormer simply as a protection of free speech,” BitMitigate owner Nicholas Lim told The Washington Times.

“In regards to whether or not customers will react negatively: I am sure that they will, but if this progression continues, unfortunately, we may live in a society where they may not be able to react at all.”

The site was soon forced back onto the Tor network, however, as Namecheap, the web registrar which had hosted the domain announced that it had terminated Anglin's account. In a Sunday post on the Namecheap company blog, CEO Richard Kirkendall argued that the Stormer was inciting violence rather than engaging in political speech.

"I’ve examined the website carefully. It purports to disclaim violence.  But, these words are profoundly hollow as the actual text supports both viewpoints as well as groups that specifically promote violence. As an example: 'It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in mathematics to understand that White men + pride + organization = Jews being stuffed into ovens.' This statement clearly incites violence and endorses wholesale eradication of Jews through genocide championed by the Nazis."

Like Prince, Kirkendall wrote that his decision was made with great discomfort.

"Let me be frank here and I’ll repeat, this was the right decision for the human race but it was also an existential threat for our company. . . . Registrars need a set of guidelines just as the internet does that empowers or requires them to remain neutral and a clear judicial process to solve these types of issues quickly and effectively. These matters should not be solved in the courts of public opinion because public opinion is not always right."

By Matthew Sheffield

Matthew Sheffield is a national correspondent for The Young Turks. He is also the host of the podcast "Theory of Change." You can follow him on Twitter.

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