Neo-Nazi Site Takedown Raises Tough Questions on Who Should Police Content
Neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer hopped from one service provider to another this week as a string of companies, including Google, GoDaddy and Cloudflare, cancelled its accounts in the wake of the Charlottesville attack. The issue has brought up a lot of questions around who should have the final say in policing unsavory content online: private companies or law enforcement, or neither?
Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince, who has previously said that he doesn’t believe his own political beliefs should color what is and is not allowed on its network, said the last straw was when Daily Stormer readers were claiming Cloudflare supported their beliefs. Prince acknowledged that his decision to terminate the service to Daily Stormer was not a Cloudflare policy and was ultimately his call.
In an interview with The Verge, Prince said the decision was dangerous “in a lot of ways … I think that we as the internet need to have a conversation about where the right place for content restriction is … but there was no way we could have that conversation until we resolved this particular issue.”
In a post on Thursday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) agreed that the decision by Prince was dangerous, and “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.”
“Protecting free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected. 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.”
The EFF said that because internet intermediaries like GoDaddy, Google, and Cloudflare “control so much online speech, the consequences of their decisions have far-reaching impacts on speech around the world.”
In the case of GoDaddy and Google, services to Daily Stormer were terminated because it was in violations of their policies and terms of service. Terms of service are the fine-print in contracts that often get skipped over as users sign up for an online service like web hosting. Companies like GoDaddy will include clauses that allow them to cancel a user’s service in specific instances, such as if the hosting services are used to promote or encourage illegal activity. In these cases, it is up to the service providers’ discretion whether a site violates its TOS.
The EFF recommends that content hosts implement procedural protections to mitigate mistakes, such as providing “user content providers with mechanisms to review decisions to restrict content in violation of the intermediary’s content restriction policies.” By being clear about these content takedown policies, users and governments will have transparency into the process.
The EFF has previously given recommendations to tech companies on how to protect their users, including fighting against unconstitutional gag orders and National Security Letters, and resisting demands for encryption backdoors. Cloudflare has previously worked with the EFF to protect its users from overarching court orders.
“Currently 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 just calls for broadband providers like Verizon or Comcast to treat all data equally,” according to a report by Bloomberg.
It is also unrealistic to expect hosting providers and internet infrastructure providers to be able to police the content of their users on an individual basis. Hosting providers already adhere to laws around copyright takedown notices and are protected through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
As many have noted in the past few days, what has happened with Daily Stormer and its fight to stay online could be a slippery slope where governments and others can pull sites they don’t agree with offline. The conversation is one companies who provide the nuts and bolts of the internet are being forced into having, even if it is uncomfortable and complex.