Most Americans with any common sense can agree that the alt-right is poisonous and fundamentally anti-American. But it has been useful in this narrow sense: the backlash against white supremacist groups online has helped expose the hypocrisy and vacuity of major Internet companies that claim to care about free expression.
Not that this should come as a surprise. After all, the purpose of Facebook and Google was never to promote “community” or free speech for their own sake, but to cash in on customers’ data. As John Herrman writes in The New York Times Magazine, these platforms “felt and functioned like freedom, but it was always a commercial simulation. This contradiction is foundational to what these internet companies are.”
That’s why, even before the white supremacist rally got underway in Charlottesville, Facebook banned the “Unite the Right” page organizers had been using to plan the event. It was a chance for Facebook to give the appearance of taking a moral stand. After the violence that ensued, including the killing of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a host of Internet companies followed suit, banning or cutting loose myriad white supremacist pages and websites.
Of course, white supremacist groups claim they’re the victims, that these bans single them out unfairly, and the accusation has a ring of truth to it. After all, ISIS and other terrorist groups have been known to use these platforms to organize, spread propaganda, and plot attacks. But now we’re going to draw the line at neo-Nazis? Why?
Internet Censorship Is Arbitrary
Take one particularly revealing example. The CEO of a company called Cloudflare recently helped shut down a neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer, which helped organize the rally in Charlottesville. The company’s co-founder and CEO, Matthew Prince, wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that he’s not sure kicking the website off the Internet was the right thing to do.
“The reality of today’s internet is that if you are publishing anything even remotely controversial, your site will get cyberattacked,” writes Prince. “Without a massive global network similar to Cloudflare’s, it is nearly impossible to withstand the barrage.” After Charlottesville, the Daily Stormer was the target of repeated cyberattacks, which Cloudflare helped to foil until, under pressure from hackers who wanted to target the site, Prince decided to cut it loose last week.
Cloudflare is a content-distribution network, which means it acts like a middleman for websites, protecting them from cyberattacks and ensuring they run smoothly. Before cutting off service to the Daily Stormer, the company’s policy had always been to remain neutral. With some 10 million customers in 70 countries, that makes sense. There is simply no way for a company like Cloudfare to police everything its customers post online.
So why did Cloudflare break with its neutrality policy? Prince doesn’t come out and say it, but the answer is obvious: it was bad for business. Prince has previously admitted that his company, like most other such firms, complies with censorship laws imposed by authoritarian regimes like China. In November 2015, after ISIS launched deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, the online hacker collective Anonymous accused Cloudflare of providing pro-ISIS websites protection against cyberattacks. At the time, Prince dismissed the allegations as “armchair analysis by kids,” but later explained that his company only intervenes if law enforcement asks them to.
In 2013, Prince posted answers to some questions he received from a magazine concerned that his company was providing services to a controversial group. Asked if his company has safeguards in place to ensure it’s not supporting terrorist activities, Prince wrote: “This question assumes the answer. A website is speech. It is not a bomb. There is no imminent danger it creates and no provider has an affirmative obligation to monitor and make determinations about the theoretically harmful nature of speech a site may contain.”
Yet under the right circumstances, all this fine talk about neutrality goes out the window, exposing the arbitrary nature of companies that effectively control the public square. Prince is at least aware of the problem. “It doesn’t sit right that to have a private company, invisible but ubiquitous, making editorial decisions about what can and cannot be online,” he writes. “The pre-internet analogy would be if Ma Bell listened in on phone calls and could terminate your line if it didn’t like what you were talking about.”
The Censorship Won’t Stop With Neo-Nazi Groups
All this should concern ordinary Americans because the implications go far beyond neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Writing in City Journal, Aaron M. Renn explains how the Google/Apple duopoly on the mobile Internet seems to be openly hostile to free expression: “Google and Apple, with a combined 98 percent market share in mobile-phone operating systems, have banned Gab, an upstart Twitter competitor with a free-speech policy quaintly modeled on the First Amendment itself, from their app stores. Google cited ‘hate speech’ as its reason for exclusion; Gab doesn’t censor.”
Google’s recent firing of James Damore over a memo questioning the company’s diversity policies is evidence enough that it doesn’t care much for actual diversity or free speech. But as Renn notes, there is no apparent market remedy because there is effectively no market. “Both the Apple and Google app stores are private markets owned by those companies, which act as their effective governments. You cannot easily start a new mobile business without their permission. If your app follows the First Amendment, there’s a good chance that you’ll be rejected.”
At a time when free speech is under assault by the mainstream media, Democratic Party leaders, on college campuses and in the streets, let’s not kid ourselves that the Internet is going to be the one place controversial or unpopular ideas can be debated openly. If nothing else, attempts to silence neo-Nazis online have shown us that the companies that control the internet are part of the censorious impulse sweeping the country, which seeks to silence much more than just some ridiculous neo-Nazis.