Major internet companies’ rush to oust a white nationalist website last week could make it tougher for tech companies and open-net advocates to try to keep the government from censoring websites in the future, the CEO of one of the companies said.
GoDaddy, Google and Cloudflare — a company that protects sites from being knocked off-line — all booted Daily Stormer from their services after the white nationalist website cheered the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and mocked the 32-year-old woman killed in the aftermath.
Matthew Prince, CEO for Cloudflare, acknowledged the decision makes it harder for his company to fight against pressure by some governments to take down a website in the future.
“I don’t know the right answer, but I do know that as we work it out it’s critical we be clear, transparent, consistent and respectful of Due Process,” Mr. Prince wrote in his statement.
At a time when open-internet advocates are pushing policies such as net neutrality, the quick moves to punish the online presence rally participants or sympathizers worried activists who said the companies appeared to be making up the rules as they went along.
“We think that there is a better route to making decisions that impact fundamental rights like freedom of expression than what appeared to be pretty ad hoc decisions being made right now,” said Peter Micek, general counsel for Access Now.
Daily Stormer took the brunt of the online blowback last week, getting kicked off hosting sites. Twitter also banned an account that shared links to stories from the controversial site, while Facebook expunged all efforts to share the offending article that mocked the woman killed in Charlottesville.
But Facebook allowed the article to remain posted as long as it was accompanied by criticism of Daily Stormer or its white nationalist views.
Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment lawyer, said he thinks it’s a good thing for the Facebooks of the world to ban certain types of racist speech, although he admits editorial editing from these sites is not without concern.
“There is an inherent danger when so many people get so much of their information from, say, Facebook — that when Facebook makes the decision not to carry something, the public is effectively deprived,” said Mr. Abrams.
Meanwhile, OkCupid, an online dating site, banned one user who admitted to being a part of the white nationalist protests.
The kind of viewpoint refereeing the sites engaged in is likely legal because the sites are private, experts said.
“I don’t see that as adding any exposure to the service provider because they already have the ability as a private actor and as a commercial provider to determine who they are going to work with, to contract with or, if you will, even to discipline,” said Brigadier Gen. Michael McDaniel, a professor at WMU-Cooley Law School.
But Mr. Abrams said tension is created when these sites engage in editing but are still protected from liability under the law.
“That’s something that all these companies must be thinking about carefully,” he said.
Twitter declined to comment, while GoDaddy and Facebook didn’t respond to questions about their censorship decisions.
Mr. Prince at Cloudflare admitted to Gizmodo that he made an exception to their policy in canceling Daily Stormer — but insisted he hadn’t set a new precedent.
“I think we have to have a conversation over what part of the infrastructure stack is right to police content,” he said.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation said what hosting companies such as GoDaddy and Cloudflare did was more worrisome than the social media companies’ censorship.
“With a content host that is like a social media site, they can just take down one post or eliminate one bit of content whereas Cloudflare and GoDaddy and so on, they can’t,” said Jeremy Malcolm, senior global policy analyst at Electronic Frontier Foundation. “They had to take down an entire website, and that gives a lot more risk of taking down legitimate speech along with the problematic speech.”