Although hate groups have organized online since the beginning of the internet, there has been an increased awareness of their activities since the deadly “Unite the Right” protest earlier this month in Charlottesville, Virginia. One of the most prominent of these “white nationalist” websites calls itself the Daily Stormer, and was a home for neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other “alt-right” groups online. Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League had been pressuring domain registrar GoDaddy.com to drop the Daily Stormer as a customer.
Following the violence in Charlottesville Daily Stormer editors posted a vulgar and insulting editorial about Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed when an alleged white nationalist drove into a crowd of anti-racism protestors at the rally. This proved to be the last straw for GoDaddy, as the company promptly removed the Daily Stormer domain and blocked the website from using its services. The Daily Stormer switched registrars to Google, who also promptly cancelled their registration. Although the site still exists on the dark web, its online presence has been drastically reduced, with Twitter, Facebook, and payment networks suspending Daily Stormer accounts.
The actions of these tech companies has been praised by those who oppose hate speech online, the SPCL and Anti-defamation League for example, but has caused others to raise free speech concerns. Digital rights watchdog the Electronic Frontier Foundation has come out against the tech companies that removed Daily Stormer from the internet, arguing that their actions create a dangerous precedent that could be use in the future to threaten the free speech of other politically unpopular groups online. The EFF cities examples the NAACP and Black Lives Matter as examples of other groups that those in power have attempted to suppress online, saying that, “Any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with.” Other First Amendment and internet scholars echo the EFF’s concerns, pointing out that although the Daily Stormer’s content was vile and reprehensible, the site’s content failed to rise to the level of actionable incitement under the law. The actions of GoDaddy and other web services companies makes Milton Mueller, a public policy professor at Georgia Tech, uneasy, saying that their actions amounted to “a de facto form of hate-speech regulation.”
How web services companies ultimately resolve the issue of those who use their technology to promote hate speech will ultimately fall to interpretations of the company’s own terms of service. The government, rightly, has no place in regulating speech online that fails to rise to incitement, and so it falls to the companies themselves to craft terms of service contracts that reflect the company’s values. As private entities, web service companies have the right to host hate speech on their platforms or ban such speech if they wish. In fact, GoDaddy, Facebook, and others have hosted sites like the Daily Stormer for years without taking actions to curtail the use of their services to promote hate speech. As it stands the companies themselves have to decide whether to take a stand against hate speech or defend the right of those who promote hate speech to have a place on their platforms.
The question society has to ask is even more difficult. Do we want tech companies to decide what constitutes hate speech? The balance between free speech online and blocking access to those who promote hate is hard to manage for the state- do we think GoDaddy can make the right call?