After Charlottesville, tech companies are forced to take action against hate speech

After Charlottesville, tech companies are forced to take action against hate speech
A woman raises her fist at the front of a march down Washington Avenue to protest racism and the violence over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 14, 2017 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Image: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Silicon Valley spent years preaching a hands-off approach to even the most extreme speech in the interest of connecting the entire world. 

After Charlottesville, that’s changing quickly. 

Facebook, Google, Spotify, Squarespace, and a variety of other tech companies are taking action to curb the use of their platforms and services by organizations associated with far-right organizations. The effort, though apparently uncoordinated, is among the most aggressive campaigns yet to push a particular group off the internet’s mainstream spaces.

The moves come in the immediate aftermath of a weekend of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the “Unite The Right” rally, organized in part on Facebook, resulted in three deaths and dozens of injuries. The Facebook Event page for the rally, which drew a mix of white nationalists, self-identified Nazi, and the alt-right, was live for more than a month before Facebook removed it, Business Insider reported. It was only shut down one day prior to the rally. 

Now, a violent act affiliated with the alt-right is serving as a turning point, and more tech companies are continuing to take public and private actions—some unprecedented or at least unusual—against what they and their communities are flagging. Now, in the aftermath of Charlottesville, Facebook and Reddit are actively shutting down several hate groups, CNET reported. Even Cloudflare, a cloud security company with a history of taking a hardline stance against limiting the use of its services, has reportedly changed its stance.

“Previously tech companies felt like their job was to work behind the scenes and to focus on the business of business. What I think has changed since Charlottesville is the fact that companies are free to create online communities that reflect the type of communities they want to see in real life,” said Brittan Heller, ‎director of technology and society at Anti-Defamation League. 

“Companies are now realizing that now is a time of moral leadership,” Heller said, whose organization published its first report on cyberhate in 1985.

One focus of tech companies’ efforts has been to quell The Daily Stormer, a website launched in 2013 by neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin. The site’s affiliation with the alt-right and hate speech is nothing new. For example, Anglin is being sued for launching a “harassment campaign that has relentlessly terrorized a Jewish woman and her family with anti-Semitic threats and messages,” The Daily Beast reported in July.

Recently The Daily Stormer gained mainstream attention for their bigotry in Charlottesville. The group had helped to coordinate the rally. Afterwards, content on their website praised the man who murdered anti-racist protester Heather Heyes After her death, other posts personally attacked Heyes. After those events, it appears that the website is now a major problem in the eyes of the tech industry.

“Since tech companies are private entities by law they have the right to take action on their terms of service. They can make choices based on the demands of their customers and the needs of the market. This was the point that it wasn’t just freedom of expression, it was incitement to violence,” Heller said. 

On Sunday, GoDaddy told The Daily Stormer that it would stop hosting its hate-filled message boards. The company later went to Google, who banned them from using the service. Google also removed the company’s YouTube page. Email provider Zoho dropped them as a client. 

Facebook also has been more active, deleting links to The Daily Stormer article that personally attacked Heather Heyer, an anti-racist protester who was murdered after a driver struck her with his car. The article can only be shared if it includes a caption condemning the post. 

“Any shares of The Daily Stormer article that don’t include a caption will be deleted, Facebook said,” according to The Verge

And yet, GoDaddy, the first tech company to make a major public move against The Daily Stormer, had previously defended the website. 

When asked by The Daily Beast in July why GoDaddy hosts The Daily Stormer and other alt-right websites, the company cited the First Amendment and noted they have “more than 17 million customers” so they cannot monitor every lawsuit. 

Twitter’s made similar arguments in the past for its reason to allow President Donald Trump to use the platform regarding free speech and for its scale and continuous game of whack a mole when it comes to addressing abuse reports. 

When it comes to The Daily Stormer and other alt-right leaders on Twitter, the company does not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reason, a Twitter spokesperson told Mashable

But Twitter’s community standards do include a “Hateful conduct policy,” which specifically states, “You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.” 

A Twitter account claiming to be The Daily Stormer was suspended this week.

“Something that violates community terms can float under the radar for years, whether it’s a closed community or there’s just not outside or public scrutiny on what the group is doing,” said Emma Llanso, director of the Free Expression Project for the Center for Democracy & Technology. 

“It’s not going to be a perfectly applied set of terms because that’s essentially impossible for websites and online services to do given the sheer volume of content,” Llanso continued.  

Not all action took place in the aftermath. Airbnb had been made aware of the potential threat earlier in the month. The home-sharing platform had learned attendees of the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia had registered to use its services via the community and proceeded to ban them. 

“When we see people pursuing behavior on the platform that would be antithetical to the Airbnb Community Commitment, we take appropriate action. In this case, last week, we removed these people from Airbnb,” CEO Brian Chesky said in a statement.

The pushback didn’t happen as quick for some tech companies. Cloudflare still worked with The Daily Stormer until Wednesday. 

According to a statement from Cloudflare, they do not host anything and therefore do not have as much of a stake in the events, it seems. 

“Cloudflare terminating any user would not remove their content from the Internet, it would simply make a site slower and more vulnerable to attack,” a statement from the company reads, according to Quartz

But that type of laissez-faire attitude sparked outrage.

On Wednesday, Matt Sheffield of Salon tweeted an image of Anglin sharing an email of his Cloudflare subscription being terminated.

Cloudflare did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Also on Wednesday, Spotify pulled “hate music” from its streaming platform, after Digital Music News published a list of 27 bands it described as “white power music.” 

For several networks, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter, their terms of service against hate speech and violence firmed up in 2015, when the public and several lawmakers pushed them on addressing terrorism. They also faced scrutiny in Europe, where hosting hate speech violates laws. 

Now, the companies face a reality in which it’s “important to be able to take proactive steps under their own terms instead of having to be responsive,” said Llanso of the Center for Democracy & Technology. 

The “Unite The Right” rally has only made it increasingly difficult for platforms to stay silent as the actions are broadcasted on social media and on television and not just behind closed doors or in pockets of the United States. 

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