September 5, 2017

The recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia has underscored the increase in racist hate groups in the United States. Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an advocacy organization that monitors extremist groups in the United States, said, “Since the era of formal white supremacy — right before the Civil Rights Act when we ended [legal] segregation — since that time, this is the most enlivened that we've seen the white supremacist movement.” As of 2016, the SPLC reports that the number of hate groups, both black and white, in the United States has increased for the second year in a row.

In an era of equal-opportunity hate, the internet has become a proving ground for new tactics in assuring social justice. In the wake of the Charlottesville debacle, web domain host service GoDaddy, terminated their services to neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer. After attempting to secure services with Google and later, a Russian site, Daily Stormer has since retreated to the dark web.

Other internet-based companies have protested Daily Stormer using similar actions in an effort to control the proliferation of hate speech and violence in the online world. OKCupid banned white supremacist Chris Cantwell from its site for life, Airbnb deactivated the accounts of members whom they believed were headed to the Charlottesville rally and GoFundMe removed crowdfunding accounts for the legal defense of James Fields, the man accused of driving his car into counter-protestors at the Charlottesville rally.

On the surface, this seems like a good thing. But beneath the noble notion of stopping hate speech lurks a far more insidious issue: The decline of free speech in the face of internet capitalism.

The Truth Behind the Stance

Dan Race, a representative for GoDaddy, said the company terminated its relationship with Daily Stormer in August 2017 due to a terms of service violation. However, one month prior, GoDaddy made a seemingly incongruous decision to protect the hate site even after Daily Stormer published an article threatening children and family members of CNN employees as well as graphic images of various CNN journalists being shot in the head. When asked why GoDaddy continued service to the hate site, Ben Butler, GoDaddy’s director of network abuse, said, “We do not see a reason to take any action under our terms of service as [the article] does not promote or encourage violence against people. While we detest the sentiment of this site and the article in question, we support First Amendment rights and, similar to the principles of free speech, that sometimes means allowing such tasteless, ignorant content.”

What happened between July and August to cause GoDaddy to change its stance? The answer is that an outpouring of extreme public pressure precipitated their move to finally deny service to Daily Stormer. The kind of flip-flop in policy exhibited by GoDaddy is indicative of the much larger problem facing proponents of free speech online — the use of vague terms of service to justify business decisions predicated by consumer opinion.

In essence, GoDaddy is not acting against hate speech; it’s acting in its own best interest and the interest of its shareholders.

Most people were happy with the decision to deny service to Daily Stormer, a publication that consistently spews hateful and vile messages. But we must consider what happens if GoDaddy decides its business base doesn’t like it hosting pro-Christian, pro-Muslim, or pro-LGBT channels. The terms of service policies for GoDaddy and many other online companies are intentionally vague. Ambiguous language allows them to make quick pivots in policy to stay ahead in an industry known to elicit lightning-fast changes in public perception. The problem with this ability to self-determine action against expression is that companies may easily slip from censoring violent hate speech to removing speech that is only controversial to some, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

In other words, what’s best for online companies’ business positions is at odds with the protection of free speech. As major intermediaries in the online environment, large private corporations have the ability to take swift action in the suppression of online speech because, unlike governments, their actions don’t require a court order. But this unchecked and opaque system of self-regulation presents a serious roadblock for free expression.

Further Complications in a Limited Online World

Currently, the internet has enough domain registrars that GoDaddy and Google’s response might subvert, but not destroy, Daily Stormer’s and other similar channels’ ability to communicate. But there are far fewer online payment processors, and withdrawal of this type of service can cost an organization the ability to raise funds necessary to support and communicate their cause, as in the case of PayPal freezing donations to Wikileaks in 2010. The difficulty with this kind of corporate activism is it results in information being moderated not by the courts and due process, but according to the whim of a few companies who control a chokepoint for public information.

As the online economy progresses, it has boiled down to a few major players — an oligopoly of technology, if you will. The top tier, dubbed “The Frightful Five” by the New York Times, comprise Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. Not surprisingly, the internet is experiencing consolidation across the board. In 2007, 50 percent of North American internet traffic came from several thousand websites. In 2016, only nine years later, 35 websites accounted for more than half of the traffic.

When just a few companies control hosting, payment and social media venues, they have the potential to make it increasingly hard for the public to access the rich, vibrant, culturally and politically diverse universe of information. Some of this is due to manipulative algorithms, exemplified by the way Facebook filtered news of the Ferguson riots in 2014, but some is a reaction to public outcry that puts pressure on their bottom lines. For example, in 2015 the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote to Dick Costolo, Twitter’s CEO, to urge him to combat groups like the Islamic State. In a bold move, Twitter’s general counsel, Vijaya Gadde responded with a pledge to preserve “…the ability of users to share freely their views — including views that many people may disagree with or find abhorrent.” However, once the public hue and cry was raised, Twitter changed course and began to suspend purported ISIS accounts.

Thankfully, there are some outliers. In a remarkable stand against the pulse of public opinion, Tobi Lutke, the CEO of Shopify, an Ottawa-based e-commerce company, decided to continue hosting a store for Breitbart News, an extreme right-wing media outlet in the United States despite receiving more than 10,000 messages urging him to drop them. Lutke said, "To kick off a merchant is to censor ideas and interfere with the free exchange of products at the core of commerce. When we kick off a merchant, we're asserting our own moral code as the superior one. But who gets to define that moral code?”

Who, indeed. When considering the rights and wrongs of online expression, it’s important to consider that what is offensive to one person may not be to another, particularly in the realm of politics and religion. All views must be protected and represented, regardless of what a vociferous few, or even many, might think. As Forbes contributor Kalev Leetaru writes, “. . . what one culture or religion might view as parody or satire might be viewed by another as hate speech. To a secular Frenchman, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed might be viewed as legitimate political satire, while to a Muslim they could be viewed as hate speech inciting violence.”

Corporate entities very often model the opinions expressed by their consumer base, rather than seeking fair representation for all views. In 2010, political cartoonist Mark Fiore’s app was rejected by Apple for satirizing public figures. Four months later, he won the Pulitzer Prize and Apple reversed face after irate consumers emailed Steve Jobs regarding Apple’s decision, underscoring not only the problem with companies determining what is and is not offensive, but also the hold that public opinion exerts over company policies.

A Complex Solution

Private companies should be allowed to act according to their own set of policies, but those policies must have a foundation in law. For the United States, this means the government needs to work toward firmer oversight of online ethical issues as well as the development of distinct guidelines for corporate policies that are firmly anchored in constitutional law. At the least, online corporate user agreements, terms and conditions, and other policies should be clearly stated and transparent. Currently, only Google, Microsoft and Twitter, out of the 22 companies featured in the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index, divulge the type of data restricted in their terms of service. Besides having clear guidelines for users, online companies should have grievance procedures in place to address potential violations of freedom of expression.

While private companies should be allowed to retain their autonomy to determine the direction and position of their businesses, they should also be compelled to follow over-arching parameters that have been determined through due process. The independent policing of speech and content by several large organizations, if allowed to continue, can easily shift these corporations into a quasi-governmental censorship role, letting slip the reins of information from the public hands for good.

In the meantime, the antidote for hate speech, online or otherwise, is not censorship. As the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wisely said in his Whitney v. California opinion in 1927, "If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Nikki Williams
is a bestselling author based in Houston, Texas. She writes about fact and fiction and the realms between, and her nonfiction work appears in both online and print publications around the world. Follow her on Twitter @williamsbnikki or at nbwilliamsbooks.com.