Today, the morally repugnant Daily Stormer website was forced off the mainstream web onto the ‘dark web’ by the likes of GoDaddy, Google and Scaleway. Every website is propped up by a ‘technology stack’ of web hosting companies, domain name providers, ad networks and payment processors, and Daily Stormer’s network decided unilaterally to take the Daily Stormer site down. Twitter also suspended at least three accounts connected to Daily Stormer.
Daily Stormer has hosted hateful and racist content for years, and was responsible for helping to organise the weekend rally in Charlottesville where a 32-year old protester, Heather Heyer was killed, and 19 other people were injured. A 19-year old self-described white nationalist has been charged with murder. A post on Daily Stormer in the wake of the attack described Heyer as dying in a “road rage incident,” called her a “drain on society,” and said “Most people are glad she is dead.”
For service providers like GoDaddy, this crossed the line. “Given The Daily Stormer’s latest article comes on the immediate heels of a violent act, we believe this type of article could incite additional violence, which violates our terms of service,” GoDaddy spokesman Dan Race told the Washington Post. Libertarians (or should that be “libtards”?) have tried to argue that this is somehow a free speech issue, but the likes of Google and GoDaddy are private corporations and have no obligation to host content that they find objectionable.
Here in the UK, ISPs are allowed to block hateful and objectionable content at source, offering an important first line of defence against radicalisation. Users can even check if a site is being blocked at blocked.org.uk. People can’t be incited to violence by that which they cannot see in the first place. In the US, things are different. FCC regulations prevent broadband service providers such as Xfinity and Verizon from blocking access to “lawful content.” The principle of Net Neutrality comes before the right of service providers to block content they deem objectionable.
This should change. The First Amendment doesn’t protect the right to incite violence, so why should Net Neutrality regulations? Net Neutrality regulations are in place to protect content providers from striking sweetheart deals with cable companies, not as a way of bypassing the First Amendment. ISPs should have the same rights and obligations as content providers when it comes to blocking access to content.
Internet services have decided en masse to take action against White Supremacist websites. Apple Pay has dropped support for websites that sell white supremacist merchandise. Squarespace has removed a group of hate speech sites. Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to remove violent threats from Facebook. Twitter has joined a host of other social media companies in taking action against the Daily Stormer. Even Spotify has removed a group of hate bands from its service, depriving them of a potential source of revenue.
In so doing, these services are putting themselves at risk, not only of DDOS and hacking attacks from the far right and white supremacists, but of having to act as arbiters on what does and doesn’t cross the line. There have been several calls for Donald Trump’s account to be suspended by Twitter, for example, for allegedly inciting nuclear warfare with Kim Jong-Un. It’s not inconceivable that an entity that feels they’ve been unfairly blocked could take legal action for damages or to try to restore their access. Many of these services, in particular the social ones, already have trouble protecting users from abuse; they do not need the headache of acting as free speech arbiters too.
It’s a bizarre anachronism that internet services providers in the United States are not able to block objectionable content (or allow their customers to purchase filtered packages), but that internet services are. White supremacists are allowed to hang around on the highways of the internet, but are not allowed through some of the shop doors at the side of the road. While this uneven treatment persists, internet services will always find themselves under pressure to block content and maintain editorial control. With hundreds of millions of pieces of content posted every minute online, it will never be possible for these sites to block every terror manual, incitement to violence or ISIS video.
The FCC have the chance to fix this by making the rules the same for internet service providers the same as the are for internet services. Internet service providers should be able to decide, as they can in other countries, which traffic they are going to let through and which traffic they are going to restrict. They should be able to sell family friendly packages so that parents do not have to worry about their children accessing websites like Daily Stormer. The fight against online hate speech is too important to be left to internet services such as GoDaddy, Google and Spotify.