Banning neo-Nazis online may be slippery slope, tech group warns Silicon Valley
By By Hamza Shaban
Aug 19, 2017 | 4:17 PM
Not everyone in Silicon Valley agrees with how major tech companies have grappled with white supremacy in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a major player in debates over civil liberties and digital privacy said in a blog post Thursday that Google and GoDaddy booting a far-right website from their services was "dangerous" and not the right way to fight extremism.
"All fair-minded people must stand against the hateful violence and aggression that seems to be growing across our country," the EFF wrote. "But we must also recognize that on the Internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with."
To illustrate its point, the EFF noted that in the civil rights era, it was the NAACP's right to express its views that came under attack.
EFF's vocal criticism stands in sharp contrast to Silicon Valley's growing antagonism to white supremacists, highlighting the contradictory, dueling approaches to combating extremist speech following the disturbing events in Charlottesville.
A host of companies have recently refused their services to white supremacists or businesses tied to them, including Apple, Cloudflare and Paypal. But even some of these companies recognize the complexity of choosing to discriminate based on content. "It's important that what we did today not set a precedent," Cloudfare Chief Executive Matthew Prince said in an email to employees after choosing to terminate service to the known neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer. "The right answer is for us to be consistently content neutral."
The EFF does not dispute that tech platforms have the right to choose what kinds of speech to host or protect. But the organization said the decisions of Internet gatekeepers such as GoDaddy, and Google have far-reaching consequences that echo around the world. One such consequence, the EFF argued, is that other entities such as foreign governments might invoke the same power to de-list websites based on political considerations. And further down the Internet ecosystem, companies may continue to ban accounts without explanation or accountability, the EFF suggested.
In a statement, Google confirmed that it canceled the Daily Stormer's registration for violating its terms of service but declined to comment on EFF's blog post.
The aggressive moves by Web companies has also called into question the power of tech platforms to control public spaces."We take a lot of these sites and places for granted, but they are really private operations," said Roy Gutterman, director at the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University.
Unlike the government, which is bound by the First Amendment, corporations have more power to exclude expression, Gutterman said. A boldly assertive approach against extremist groups has heightened concerns that massive tech platforms are effectively becoming the arbiters of free speech in America. "They don't like the Nazis today, but tomorrow it's somebody else," he said. "You may get to the point where you have a whimsical CEO who wants to de-list a political group or a movement."
"Protecting free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected," the EFF said. "We do it because we believe that no one-not the government and not private commercial enterprises - should decide who gets to speak and who doesn't."