It was inevitable that the fallout from violent protests in Virginia organized by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups would extend to the virtual world of the web. The internet is our modern commons. But the past few days have shown how fast we can glide down the slippery slope to web censorship.
Facebook and Twitter were perfectly within their rights, legally and ethically, when they banned accounts of certain hate groups and their leaders. These are private companies enforcing their own rules about how their services and platforms can be used. Providers of web infrastructure, however, must be held to a stricter standard since they act as choke points that can prevent an individual or group from being able to express themselves online.
Soon after the Charlottesville events, domain name registrars GoDaddy and Google separately decided to no longer serve the Daily Stormer after the neo-Nazi site wrote a disparaging story about Heather Heyer, the woman who died after being struck by a car while protesting the Charlottesville rally. Registrars act as a sort of phone book for the internet by turning a raw IP address - like 22.214.171.124 - into a line of text, like “Bloomberg.com.” Without GoDaddy or Google, it would be impossible for people to find the Daily Stormer online. Shortly afterward CloudFlare, which offers firewall services for websites to help them ward off attacks, kicked the Daily Stormer off its servers.
In a refreshingly candid email to his employees and blog post, CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince admitted that his decision was “arbitrary” and “dangerous,” and departed from years of maintaining strict neutrality about the content of the sites his company protected. As Prince told Gizmodo: “I think the people who run The Daily Stormer are abhorrent. But again I don’t think my political decisions should determine who should and shouldn’t be on the internet.”
It’s hard not to cheer Prince’s courage and his motives. But his decision and those of the registrars have big implications for the debate over how the internet should be regulated. To reach web users, publishers of content small and large rely on a complex machinery of web hosts, domain registrars, transit providers, platforms, proxy servers and search engines.
While the companies that provide the back-end services of the web are less well known than the Facebook and Snapchats of the world, they’re indispensable to its smooth functioning; they are effectively the plumbing that allows the whole system to function. When they take sides, everyone loses.
Many, myself included, may be happy to see the Daily Stormer pushed into web oblivion, but we probably wouldn’t feel the same way for publishers of content we agreed with. What if a dissident politician or a corporate whistle-blower got similar treatment?
There are no U.S. laws or regulations to prevent web infrastructure providers from taking such actions. Under federal law, private corporations can deny service to groups or individuals as long as it’s not because of their race, religion or sexuality. Nor does the principle of “net neutrality” really apply since that merely calls for broadband providers like Verizon or Comcast to treat all data equally.
We may need new rules in the U.S. that specifically bar web infrastructure providers from cutting off services to publishers based on their content. This would limit firms like GoDaddy’s ability to use their terms of service to silence people with controversial views.
It would be preferable to keep efforts to eradicate hate speech at the platform level and not among the providers of internet infrastructure services. After long resisting, platforms like Facebook and Twitter now acknowledge that they bear some responsibility for what people post. Since they are governed by local laws where they operate, they fall under the jurisdiction of elected officials with the legitimacy to regulate. Just look at Germany’s tough new law that levies fines up to $58.5 million (50 million euros) if social networks don’t remove hate speech promptly.
Regulators will make mistakes and may even overreach. But they have more standing to make tough calls on free speech than the internet’s plumbers.
Abboud is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology.