Tech Censorship of White Supremacists Draws Criticism From Within Industry

Tech Censorship of White Supremacists Draws Criticism From Within Industry

The moves by tech companies like Cloudflare have been chided for threatening freedom of expression online

By Yoree Koh Updated Aug. 19, 2017 8:28 a.m. ET

The debate intensified over whether the growing number of tech companies that blocked white supremacists and a neo-Nazi website on the internet have gone too far, as a prominent privacy group questioned the power a few corporations have to censor.

The Chief Executive of Cloudflare Inc., one of several internet companies this week to cut ties with Daily Stormer, effectively preventing the neo-Nazi website from appearing on the web, admitted he set a troubling precedent.

“As [an] internet user, I think it’s pretty dangerous if my moral, political or economic whims play some role in deciding who can and cannot be online,” Matthew Prince, CEO and co-founder of Cloudflare, said in an interview.

On Thursday, the nonprofit privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation said tech companies including Cloudflare, GoDaddy Inc. and Google, part of Alphabet Inc., threatened freedom of expression online by blocking Daily Stormer. The three tech companies pulled support for Daily Stormer after it published a story denigrating Heather Heyer, the 32 year-old woman killed in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend. The moves made Daily Stormer’s website inaccessible.

“Protecting free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected,” the EFF said in a statement. “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.”

Over the past week, tech companies including Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., and GoFundMe Inc. removed white supremacists from their platforms, overthrowing the image some of the companies convey of being neutral platforms with free-speech principles.

On Thursday, Spotify said it began removing white-nationalist acts from its music-streaming platform. “Illegal content or material that favors hatred or incites violence against race, religion, sexuality or the like is not tolerated by us,” a Spotify spokesman said in an emailed statement. Dating site OkCupid, part of Match Group Inc., said it banned Chris Cantwell, a white supremacist who participated in the Charlottesville riots, within 10 minutes of being alerted that he used the service this week.

Mr. Prince said that while he and Cloudflare employees had long thought of Daily Stormer’s content as “repugnant,” Daily Stormer crossed the line when it claimed that Mr. Prince and others at the company secretly supported its views. Daily Stormer was the first time the company removed a client for reasons other than under court order or for explicit violations of their terms of service.

Cloudflare protects sites from denial-of-service attacks, which make sites slower and more vulnerable to attack. About 2.4 billion people pass through Cloudflare’s network every month, according to Mr. Prince.

The EFF said “states and malicious actors” often turn to denial-of-service attacks when they try to silence voices. Cloudflare’s decision to deny security against these kinds of attacks to Daily Stormer signals that they can pick and choose clients, making it more difficult for them to fend off external pressure in the future, the EFF said.

The censorship of Daily Stormer was decided by behind-the-scenes actors that are little known to the general public, rather than players like Facebook and Twitter, the ostensible windows of the internet that are in direct contact with users, making the moves more unsettling, said Mr. Prince.

Mr. Prince said he hopes his decision will spur conversations around how to handle controversial content. One of the first of those occurred Friday afternoon at Cloudflare’s San Francisco headquarters, where Mr. Prince faced questions from about 200 employees at a weekly employee gathering. The questions included, “How are you explaining this to your parents?” according to Mr. Prince.

“It’s so critical that as a society we ask, ‘was that good?’” Mr. Prince said after the meeting of his decision to ban Daily Stormer. “If we simply provoke that question that would be a very positive outcome for what has been a hard week.”


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