The Slippery Slope of Internet Blacklisting

Demonstrators carry Confederate and Nazi flags during Unite the Right rally at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017. (Photo by Emily Molli/NurPhoto, Sipa via AP Images)

How do you feel about various tech providers censoring Daily Stormer in the wake of the Charlottesville riots after the white supremacist site posted a vile, disturbing article attacking the victim of the car-ramming incident? Is this the beginning of the end of Internet freedom or merely an appropriate response to a website that traffics in human thought that is evil and beyond the bounds of human decency? It's not a simple question, by any means.

Before we get into that, it's important to lay out exactly what happened.

  1. Shortly after Heather Heyer was mowed down in Charlottesville, Daily Stormer, a white nationalist neo-Nazi site, posted a depraved article essentially saying she deserved to die because she's an unmarried Bernie supporter — and worse — who was too fat and slow to get out of the way of the speeding vehicle. It was just the most recent example of the unbridled hatred the site spews on a regular basis.
  2. After a public outcry, GoDaddy, the site's domain registrar, cancelled their registration, tweeting late Sunday night: "We informed The Daily Stormer that they have 24 hours to move the domain to another provider, as they have violated our terms of service." It's important to note that GoDaddy wasn't hosting Daily Stormer's content, it was merely the site's registrar, handling registration of "dailystormer.com" in the global domain name system that connects domain names to IP addresses.
  3. Whereupon Daily Stormer (for some bizarre reason) thought Google would be more amenable to registering its domain. Whereupon Google said (paraphrasing): Yeah, right. Take a hike, losers. "We are cancelling Daily Stormer’s registration with Google Domains for violating our terms of service," the company wrote in a statement emailed to Ars Technica.
  4. Currently the site is offline. If you try to go there, you won't find it. For all intents and purposes the site has disappeared from the Internet. Although the content still exists, it's not accessible to the public right now. If you try to go to a specific page (like this one) you will see this message:

 

 

Which redirects you to this:

 

Which brings us to (potentially) the next phase of Daily Stormer's blacklisting. CloudFlare, a service that protects sites from distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, is under immense pressure to remove Daily Stormer from its client list. Thus far they have refused to drop the site. In a statement to TechCrunch, a spokesman said, "CloudFlare is aware of the concerns that have been raised over some sites that have used our network. We find the content on some of these sites repugnant. While our policy is to not comment on any user specifically, we are cooperating with law enforcement in any investigation.” In a statement to Quartz, the company added, "CloudFlare is not the host of any website. CloudFlare is a network that provides performance and security services to more than 10% of all Internet requests. CloudFlare terminating any user would not remove their content from the Internet, it would simply make a site slower and more vulnerable to attack."

This is in line with CloudFlare's longstanding policy of refusing to censor sites based on content. The company has come under fire in recent years for protecting even evil sites run by ISIS operatives. CloudFlare founder and CEO Matthew Prince explained the company's policy in a 2015 interview in the midst of demands by Anonymous to stop providing services to objectionable sites:

Prince told us hosting any content on his network is not an endorsement – there are millions of pages cached in his company's servers. And he said it was a bit rich for Anonymous to be pressuring CloudFlare to drop websites.

"I did see a Twitter handle said that they were mad at us," Prince told The Register on Tuesday. "I'd suggest this was armchair analysis by kids – it's hard to take seriously. Anonymous uses us for some of its sites, despite pressure from some quarters for us to take Anonymous sites offline."

If the cops or Feds come to San Francisco-based CloudFlare about one of its customers, and they have all the proper legal documentation to take down a site, then the Silicon Valley upstart is happy to cooperate, Prince said.

But more often than not, investigators want him to keep sites up rather than take them down. Read into that what you will.

"Even if we were hosting sites for ISIS, it wouldn't be of any use to us," he continued. "I should imagine those kinds of people pay with stolen credit cards and so that's a negative for us."

With more than four million customers, it's inevitable that some clients may be dodgy, he said. On whether a website should be allowed onto his cloud platform, he said he'd rather take advice from the police or the US State Department (which is also a customer) than from some faceless Twitter user.

It's not in CloudFlare's philosophy to just take down sites because management doesn't agree with the content, Prince said. Some hosting companies exercise tight control about what can be served, but his firm doesn't want that kind of power.

He cited a personal case from a few years back, after a hacker used stolen information about Prince to access his tax files and posted the details on a CloudFlare-hosted site. Prince says he didn't take the site down, although the US authorities did shortly afterwards since the hacker had also posted personal data from Michelle Obama and the head of the FBI.

So far CloudFlare is holding firm in its refusal to blacklist Daily Stormer. Time will tell if they eventually bow to public pressure.

There's also popular chat platform Discord's announcement that they would be shutting down servers and accounts of alt-right customers, citing terms of service (TOS) violations

The company clarified in a statement that "we unequivocally condemn white supremacy, neonazism, or any other group, term, ideology that is based on these beliefs. They are not welcome on Discord.”

“While we don’t read people’s private servers our Terms of Service explicitly forbid harassment, threatening messages, or calls to violence…The public server linked to AltRight.com that violated [the ToS] was shut down along with several other public groups and accounts fostering bad actors on Discord," the company added.

Which brings us to the pesky topic of "terms of service" and its close relative, "community standards," which it seems can mean anything a company wants it to mean in the service of defending their decisions to blacklist sites. Both Google and GoDaddy cited TOS violations as their reason for dropping Daily Stormer. The definition of racism (or any other "ism") cited in these terms of service tend to be amorphous and are often used as an escape hatch for a company that wants to retroactively defend a decision to cease doing business with a company. Indeed, GoDaddy hadn't taken any action against Daily Stormer until this week, despite years of voluminous abhorrent content. Now suddenly they have a problem with it.

Many people are cheering GoDaddy and Google for their refusal to serve Daily Stormer. The site is so repellent that it's not completely unreasonable to think it shouldn't be allowed to have a public forum. It should, at minimum, be shamed out of existence. Absent that, a lot of people believe it's completely appropriate for tech companies to refuse to do business with them. (Of course, many of the people calling for this denial of service wouldn't extend the same right of refusal to, say, Christian bakers who don't want to use their artistic talents to support gay weddings. But that's a topic for another day.)

Which brings us to the essential question conservatives should be asking now: Where could all this lead? What's to stop GoDaddy (which is the domain name registrar for PJM, by the way) from deciding to stop providing services to other sites that the mob decides shouldn't exist? Daily Stormer is among the most extreme examples, but don't be fooled. The same people who are screaming loudest that the site shouldn't be allowed to exist would do the same to PJM or any other conservative site in a heartbeat. In a day when the terms "racist" and "hate speech" have been redefined to include basically anything that the left disagrees with, conservatives could easily find themselves in the crosshairs. (In fact, a writer at Vox suggests that "racist, homophobic chants" are not even protected by the First Amendment, contra a myriad of court decisions.) It's just a short jump from saying that vile, debauched sites like Daily Stormer should be banned to insisting that all "hate speech" (defined by the left) should be erased from the Internet. This is nothing new. Conservative YouTubers have been demonetized in recent months and even the mild-mannered Dennis Prager has had his videos restricted from the platform. And now, with the firing of a Google employee for voicing verboten conservative opinions, it's obvious that the threat is real. Increased and even widespread censorship and blacklisting of other conservative sites could be imminent.

One could argue that these privately owned companies have a right to discriminate and refuse service to certain clients with whom they don't want to do business. It's what many of us have argued in the cases of bakers and photographers who don't want to participate in gay weddings. Beyond the religious liberty argument, the case can be made that anti-discrimination laws violate such basic tenets of our founding principles as the right to free speech and the freedom of association. And therein lies the conflict. In a free market (one that's free from government intrusion), a private company should be permitted to choose the individuals or companies with whom they do business. First Amendment rights pertain to government censorship of free speech, not to private transactions and communications. This all gets convoluted when government entities get in between individuals and their customers, using the jackboot of government to regulate speech and force individuals to comply with an ever increasing array of speech codes and acceptable behavior mores.

Ken White, who writes at Popehat, told Ars Technica that even though Daily Stormer is a "sewer of humanity" that "advocates for killing people in general," GoDaddy's decision to drop them is "not actionable incitement under the law." He added that "GoDaddy, of course, can kick Nazis off its platform as it likes."

But Milton Mueller, a public policy professor at Georgia Tech, warns that GoDaddy has set a dangerous precedent. "As much as I hate the Daily Stormer and I think this attack on this murdered person is disgusting, the idea that you go after the domain to shut them down makes me uneasy," Mueller told Ars Technica. "It seems to be essentially a de facto form of hate-speech regulation."

Where does all this leave conservatives who want to preserve their right to speak freely and to broadcast their opinions in the marketplace of ideas? The word "broadcast" is where things get tricky. Many are calling for antitrust laws to be brought down on companies like Google, Facebook, and even Amazon, arguing that they've become too powerful, squelching competition, ensuring that consumers have few if any viable alternatives. There are calls for Google and Facebook to be regulated as public utilities, ensuring (they believe) that the government would be fairer arbiters of what should be allowed both in content and in pricing schemes. And therein lies the rub. Can we trust that a handful of individuals at the FCC will always be fair in their dealings with conservative content? Call me skeptical.

Ultimately, it's important to understand that the Internet can't be controlled. Sure, companies like Google can deprioritize or even ban content that their powerful and vocal ruling snowflakes deem objectionable. But think of the Internet like a massive river. While it can be controlled to some extent with censorious dams, the water, especially when it comes in the form of a furious storm, finds a way around the barriers (see, for example, multiple attempts to knock WikiLeaks offline. At best you're playing whack-a-mole, only to see sites re-emerge somewhere else). For every GoDaddy that refuses to serve Daily Stormer or Breitbart or PJ Media, there's a Gandi, whose slogan is "No Bull**it," offering completely anonymous registrations, even to the point of accepting payment in Bitcoin and offering free SSL certificates with the registration of the domain name. And for every Google there's a DuckDuckGo waiting in the wings to take advantage of the bad PR currently being heaped upon the Google nannies. TechCrunch warns that internet censorship could lead to "a pitiful, parallel Internet of Hate as the excommunicated communities coalesce and organize." While that's certainly possible — even likely — it's also possible that a parallel center-right Internet could evolve. PJM contributor Megan Fox is right to suggest that center-right billionaires invest in tech rather than political candidates. Why couldn't a Roger Ailes do for the Internet what he did for cable news? Such steps are going to be essential in our increasingly polarized — and tribally driven — culture. Let's not wait for Google and GoDaddy to censor us. We should instead take proactive steps now to protect ourselves and our content so that we're not blacklisted out of existence.