WASHINGTON ― The Daily Stormer, a website started by a neo-Nazi, has promoted racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic content since it was founded in 2013. But this week, after a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, several tech companies effectively kicked the site off the internet.
Some of the companies that stopped doing business with The Daily Stormer argued that the website violated their terms of service by inciting violence, which major internet companies prohibit.
But a CEO at of one of those firms sent an email to staffers on Wednesday that frankly acknowledged what other tech companies have refused to admit publicly: The interpretation of terms of service is often subjective, giving internet infrastructure companies the power to effectively shut down their customers’ websites whenever they feel like it. That leaves any group’s ability to keep operating its website subject to the arbitrary whims of private firms.
“I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet,” Matthew Prince, the CEO of Cloudflare, wrote of his company’s decision to stop offering The Daily Stormer protection from distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyberattacks from hackers. Prince acknowledged that his decision could set a dangerous precedent. “No one should have that power,” he told staffers.
Private companies should not take it upon themselves to decide what content deserves to be on the internet, free speech advocates argue. “On the Internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group, wrote in a statement.
If tech companies’ actions against The Daily Stormer serve as a precedent, the same companies could be pressured into censoring groups like Black Lives Matter, EFF noted.
“You can take down ISIS accounts and no one’s going to yell at you. If you take down a white supremacist account ... you get charged with political bias.”
The debate over how private companies should police hate speech and abuse online typically centers around social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, where it is not uncommon for users to have their accounts terminated for posting violent or obscene content. Twitter took down accounts associated with The Daily Stormer, AirBnB suspended accounts of rally attendees, OkCupid banned white supremacist Chris Cantwell for life “within 10 minutes,” and GoFundMe took down crowdfunding efforts for the man accused of hitting anti-Nazi protesters with his car, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other people.
But taking down an entire website has a more silencing effect than restricting access to a social media or sharing economy platform. That’s why it’s extremely unusual for internet companies to stop doing business with a customer whose website features hateful or violent content, unless the site is being used to conduct illegal activity.
“One of the big challenges is that you can take down ISIS accounts and no one’s going to yell at you. If you take down a white supremacist account with a Trump avatar that is posting about U.S. politics mixed with white nationalism, you get charged with political bias,” said a tech company employee who requested anonymity to speak freely about the industry’s internal thinking on regulating hateful content.
The Daily Stormer, typically relegated to the internet fringes, attracted national attention for a post that defended the man accused of killing Heyer and disparaged Heyer instead. It was titled: “Woman Killed in Road Rage Incident was a Fat, Childless 32-Year-Old Slut.”
GoDaddy, which handled registration of the Daily Stormer’s domain — but didn’t actually host the website’s content — cut ties with the site shortly after the story was published. The Daily Stormer then registered with Google, which canceled its domain about three hours later, a Google spokesman told HuffPost. Cloudflare pulled service for the site on Wednesday.
The Daily Stormer also tried to move to Russian and Chinese web domains, which were both canceled hours after they were created. The French web hosting company Scaleway also locked access to the Daily Stormer’s servers, Vox reported.
As of Friday, The Daily Stormer’s website could not be accessed through a Google search. Before the site was kicked offline, its founder, Andrew Anglin, told readers it would continue to exist on the dark web, accessible only through Tor, a software that provides anonymity to users.
The Tor Project said on Thursday that although it rejects The Daily Stormer’s “hate-spewing” ideology, it wouldn’t censor the site in the interest of preserving an open platform. Anglin did not respond to a request for comment.
GoDaddy, which had already been criticized for providing services to The Daily Stormer, decided to cut ties with site because it “crossed the line and encouraged and promoted violence,” the company’s director of the digital crimes unit, Ben Butler, said in a statement. The company did not respond to questions about what that line is and whether The Daily Stormer had crossed it before.
The Daily Stormer has long published content that could be interpreted as encouraging violence.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, for example, Anglin rallied behind then-Republican candidate Donald Trump and urged his readers to harass Trump’s critics ― especially Jewish ones. Anglin and his readers have repeatedly used the website to share the personal contact information of their targets.
Internet companies, which tend to take a neutral stance on the content they help keep online, found it harder to defend that position in the wake of Charlottesville. “If I’m Google and I’ve gotten the shit kicked out of me for the last two weeks about the Damore memo, I’m not going to be thrilled about another month-long press cycle about white supremacists,” said the tech employee, who does not work for Google.
A Google spokesman said that The Daily Stormer violated the tech company’s terms of service. “We don’t want our services used to incite violence,” he said. The spokesman declined to comment on whether the company’s decision to cut off the site was arbitrary.
It is also unclear how effective it is to deny domain registration and DDoS services to sites like The Daily Stormer when companies have plenty of other options, both at home and abroad.
“You can always find a domain somewhere in the world to host your shady content as long as you’re not trafficking in child pornography,” the tech employee said. “I know that it’s probably satisfying for people to make GoDaddy or Google make a decision. But as a practical matter, if your end goal is to force this crap off the internet, it doesn’t really accomplish much.”
“I know that it's probably satisfying for people to make GoDaddy or Google make a decision. But as a practical matter, if your end goal is to force this crap off the Internet, it doesn’t really accomplish much.””
But “open” platforms are more open for bullies and abusers than for marginalized or targeted communities, argued Jaclyn Friedman, who led a successful campaign to apply Facebook’s hate-speech ban to gender-based violence.
“When Nazis have ‘free speech’ on Twitter, I am forced to choose between speaking up there ― and being deluged by anti-Semitism and death threats ― or not getting to participate in that public square,” she said. “What tech companies should be striving for instead of the impossible ‘neutrality’ is transparency. Take a stand. Make your values clear to all users. And then live up to them,” she added.
“The largest problem we’ve seen so far with these communities being able to run wild is that the companies aren’t willing to take action even if there’s flagrant violations,” said Keegan Hankes, a research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. But that’s reversed over the last couple days, as “everyone’s seen the images from Charlottesville,” he said.
Hankes added, “It’s been great to see them start to take this seriously, because we’ve been trying to make the point for years now.”
The Anti-Defamation League, an organization that fights anti-Semitism and bigotry, said GoDaddy made the right decision in denying service to The Daily Stormer. “When companies have guidelines which prohibit content, and they don’t take action to enforce their terms of service, it suggests that perhaps the companies condone it,” Brittan Heller, the group’s director of technology and society, wrote in an email.
But as long as private companies are in charge of removing hate speech and deciding how to define it, those decisions can still be arbitrary. As of Friday, AltRight.com, a website by white nationalist Richard Spencer, still lists “DDoS protection by Cloudflare” ― the company that dropped The Daily Stormer on Wednesday. AltRight.com features an article urging white nationalists to “learn how to box or grapple” and to “join us at our next rally.”
A Cloudflare spokesperson said the company “can’t comment on any specific user without their permission.”