How Far Should Tech Companies Go To Protect Against Hate Speech?

Written by Staff

Consumers should not be so quick to condemn the display of even “the most vile white supremacist speech,” says the American Civil Liberties Union.

People are relieved when speech they disagree with is removed, but the censorship can come back to bite them when they find themselves on the receiving end.

From Chicago Tribune. Story by Elizabeth Dwoskin and Tracy Jan/Washington Post

The push for Internet businesses to remove hateful speech spread to an influential corner of the tech industry on Monday as web registration service GoDaddy delisted a prominent neo-Nazi site in the wake of violent clashes over the weekend in Charlottesville.

The move by GoDaddy, which registers domain names for 71 million websites globally, is the latest and perhaps the broadest indication of how far technology companies are willing to go in response to public outcry that their services are being used to facilitate racism and white supremacy. Although Silicon Valley companies have long resisted calls to police the content they host, in the current political climate they are under more pressure than ever to take a stand — and appear to be bowing at least to some of it.

“This may very well indicate that the sense of responsibility among tech companies is deepening,” said Susan Benesch, director of the Dangerous Speech Project, a nonprofit group that researches the intersection of harmful online content and free speech. “They are under gigantic pressure to solve this problem, and they are reacting as they never have before.”

On Monday, GoDaddy kicked the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer off its systems, citing company policies that prohibit websites from speech that incites “violence against people.”

GoDaddy said the move was in response to an appeal from a Twitter user who called attention late Sunday to an online post by Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin who disparaged Heather Heyer, 32, who was killed Saturday in Charlottesville, police say, when a man plowed into a crowd with his vehicle.

The post attacked Heyer’s appearance, used a slur to describe her as promiscuous and said she was “childless.” “Most people are glad she is dead,” Anglin wrote.

The Daily Stormer then transferred its registration to Google, prompting an immediate outcry and a swift response from the Silicon Valley giant, which cut off the white supremacy site, citing policy violations.

A lesser-known tech start-up, Cloudflare, continued to service the Daily Stormer.

Liberal activists and even some conservatives praised GoDaddy’s decision in the wake of Saturday’s attack, saying the move represented a shift by tech corporations to take more responsibility.

“It’s well past time for platforms that already exercise some discretion to stop pretending they are just dumb pipes that allow all types of garbage to flow through them,” said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University. “It seems to me a significant move in a direction that is long overdue.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union said that consumers should not be so quick to condemn the display of even “the most vile white supremacist speech.”

People are relieved when speech they disagree with is removed, but the censorship can come back to bite them when they find themselves on the receiving end, said Lee Rowland, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberty Union’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project.The First Amendment has enabled Americans throughout the country’s history to challenge the status quo, because “we are able to reveal what people really think and counter it,” she added.

Other experts said the move to regulate speech puts Silicon Valley in an even deeper bind that is far from resolved. Technology companies are becoming the reluctant gatekeepers and facilitators of political expression for much of the world. Facebook now serves one third of the world’s population monthly; GoDaddy is the largest domain registration service.

“The traditional view was that if you are a social media company, as long as people aren’t advocating violence, you should let them use your platform because censorship is a slippery slope,” said Mike Cernovich, a popular conservative media personality. “There are always ideas people have on the left and right (that) are gong to offend somebody, but do we really want corporations taking sides?”

Read more at Chicago Tribune.

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