In the week since white supremacists descended on Charlottesville with tiki torches blazing, tech companies have begun to eliminate website hosting or accounts run by neo-Nazis. The decision to kick people off the internet—a world many of us occupy in equal measure, if not more than we do the physical one around us—is not one taken lightly, and these companies have remained cautious until proven complicit.
The CEO of Cloudflare, Matthew Prince, explained in a public blog post why he chose to drop the Daily Stormer, a hate-mongering website that published openly racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist screeds, including a post about Heather Heyer. “Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion,” writes Prince. “The tipping point for us making this decision was that the team behind Daily Stormer made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology.” (ProPublica skewered Cloudfare earlier this year for providing the Daily Stormer with information about people who criticized or complained about the website’s explicitly offensive content.)
Cloudflare is not alone in abandoning Nazi clients. As Adrienne Jeffries reported at The Outline, in the last few days Squarespace has dropped an array of so-called “alt-right” sites, including the think tank of neo-Nazi poster boy Richard Spencer. On Tuesday, Sean Captain at Fast Company noticed that publishing platform WordPress.com (the parent company of Longreads) is no longer hosting the website for the ultra-nationalist organization Vanguard America. (The man who drove the car that killed Heyer and injured 19 other people was allegedly a Vanguard America member, though the organization has tried to disown him.)
On Thursday, one of the neo-Nazis who appeared in a Vice News Tonight special on Charlottesville was found on the dating app OkCupid, and was banned “within ten minutes,” the app tweeted. (On a now deleted site, white supremacists in Charlottesville gave live updates on the dating scene in the city: “If you’re at a bar in a group, random girls will want to have sex with you. Because you’re the bad boys. The ultimate enemy of the state. Every girl on the planet wants your dick now.”) The white supremacists cried foul at the tech companies, accusing them of censorship and limiting the constitutional right to free speech based solely on political pressure and a liberal bias.
Is kicking Nazis off of certain internet platforms, or denying them service, a violation of their right to free speech?
Very simply, no.
All of the aforementioned companies are businesses. They could, if they were brick-and-mortar shops, deny service to whomever they please. No shirt. No shoes. No swastikas. They could be sued for doing so if someone wanted to argue that their reasons are discriminatory — for example, if it was because the user or client was gay, or black, or Jewish. Prince makes an interesting argument for valuing “due process” even higher than free speech, and defines due process as the ability “to know the rules a system will follow if you participate in that system.”
As Jeffries notes, Squarespace’s rules, which all users must accept, explicitly forbids “bigotry or hatred against any person or group based on their race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual preference, age or disability.” Spencer and his ilk were blatantly violating that agreement.
It’s a little trickier for WordPress.com, and even more complicated for Cloudflare. Captain points out that WordPress.com’s user agreement forbids “directly threatening material,” but also notes, “These are just guidelines—interpretations are solely up to us.” And as Kate Conger explains at Gizmodo, Cloudflare has long had a “content-neutral” policy and doesn’t plan on changing it. Prince even admitted that his decision to drop Daily Stormer was exactly what he advocates against: personal and arbitrary. The operators, he told Conger, were “assholes” and he was angry they were claiming online that he and Cloudflare supported their agenda. Conger published an internal email from Prince to his staff informing them that Daily Stormer had been dropped, in which he explicitly stated, “I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet.”
My rationale for making this decision was simple: the people behind the Daily Stormer are assholes and I’d had enough.
Let me be clear: this was an arbitrary decision… It was a decision I could make because I’m the CEO of a major Internet infrastructure company…
Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.
The free speech debate is one that’s roiling all over the nation — the ACLU is currently dealing with the ramifications of their decision to represent hatemonger Milo Yiannopoulos in court, which prompted board members to resign, staff attorneys to speak out, and various state and local chapters to object, and ACLU of California broke with ACLU National today when it released a statement that “White Supremacist Violence is Not Free Speech.”
Our country’s greatest strengths are the diversity of its people and the principles of equal dignity and inclusion that unite us all. There are troubling events planned in our state in the coming weeks. This is an incredibly painful and difficult time for millions of Californians. For those who are wondering where we stand – the ACLU of California fully supports the freedom of speech and expression, as well as the freedom to peacefully assemble. We review each request for help on a case-by-case basis, but take the clear position that the First Amendment does not protect people who incite or engage in violence. If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution. The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.