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Charlottesville is reshaping the fight against online hate

This morning, the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer dropped off the internet, the result of sustained campaigning by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups. In the wake of a killing and widespread violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, web services company GoDaddy announced it was dropping the Daily Stormer as a client, leaving the site without a registrar. After a brief stay at Google, the site dropped off the web entirely. As of press time, requests to dailystormer.com are simply timing out, although a replica site has already been established as a Tor Hidden Service.

It’s a quick end to one of the most notorious neo-Nazi sites on the web, and comes as part of a larger push against hate groups across the internet. Yesterday, the chat app Discord announced it was banning an array of alt-right-affiliated channels, and GoFundMe has already begun banning donations in support of an accused murderer in Charlottesville. For years, that kind of ban has been held back by concern over content neutrality and free speech principles, but in the aftermath of public violence by explicitly white supremacist groups, those concerns have less sway than ever before. The result is newfound scrutiny among platforms and service providers, and new questions about what that scrutiny will mean outside of hate groups.

As a matter of law, GoDaddy was well within its rights. There are no federal laws prohibiting private corporations from denying service to specific groups, outside of protected categories like race, religion, or sexuality. A few state-level laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of political affiliation, but most experts say dropping a site for violent white nationalist views would be difficult to challenge in court. Even staunch content-neutrality advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation say GoDaddy is within its rights in cutting off the site.

“Should GoDaddy be forced to host content they don’t believe in? Of course not,” EFF senior staff attorney Nate Cardozo told The Verge. “If GoDaddy wants to cut off every site that hosts pictures of dogs and give free hosting to every site that hosts pictures of cats, it’s absolutely their right to.”

At the same time, there are long-standing concerns over any tactic that targets the mechanics of the internet itself. GoDaddy does provide hosting services, but the company says it only served as a registrar to the Daily Stormer, with the website itself located on another service. On a technical level, GoDaddy dropping the site was more like refusing to list someone’s address in the phone book, rather than refusing to rent them a room.

For groups like EFF, that’s an important distinction. SOPA and other copyright protection proposals have specifically targeted web infrastructure, hoping to ban registrars and other providers from directing users to websites that host pirated content. Crucially, SOPA would have constituted a legal mandate — a much stronger measure than the voluntary drop that took down the Daily Stormer — but for some groups, SOPA drove home the dangers of infrastructure providers making decisions about content.

“We feel that the infrastructure that serves up the internet must remain neutral,” Cardozo said. “It’s pipes versus houses.”

At the same time, many anti-racism groups see free speech arguments as a distraction. The Oakland-based Center for Media Justice applauded GoDaddy’s decision to drop the site, citing the extreme nature of the Charlottesville killing. “For me, this isn’t about speech at all — it’s about the violent actions that led to the death of a young woman,” said director Malkia Cyril. “Cutting off sponsorship of violent white supremacy isn’t corporate censorship. It’s a positive assertion of values and a clear rebuke of domestic terrorism.”

GoDaddy has walked the line between those two sides, emphasizing its commitment to free speech while insisting that the Stormer’s promotion of violence went too far.

“While we detest the sentiment of hate sites, we support a free and open Internet and, similar to the principles of free speech, that sometimes means allowing such tasteless, ignorant content,” Digital Crimes Unit director Ben Butler wrote in a comment to The Verge. “Where a site goes beyond the mere exercise of these freedoms, however, and crosses over to promoting, encouraging, or otherwise engaging in violence against any person, we will take action. In our determination, especially given the tragic events in Charlottesville, Dailystormer.com crossed the line and encouraged and promoted violence.”

From the beginning, GoDaddy has emphasized the Stormer’s promotion of violence, particularly in the wake of white nationalist violence in Charlottesville — but that’s not an argument that resonates with everyone. “It is a surprising line to draw when it comes to The Daily Stormer,” said Keegan Hankes, an analyst at the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “The site has explicitly called for genocide on numerous occasions. It’s incredibly violent in its rhetoric.”

For Hankes, the danger goes beyond explicit calls for violence. He points to Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine members of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and attributed his “awakening” to materials published by the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens.

“Propaganda can cause violent action just as much as an actual call to violence,” Hankes says. “He acted on what he saw as a concerted attack against the white race, and he thought that because he spent hours online reading this propaganda.”

GoDaddy’s ban seems to have been specifically triggered by a Daily Stormer post celebrating the killing of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old Charlottesville resident struck by a car while protesting the rally. Facebook has also taken specific action against the post, deleting any shares of the article that don’t include a caption and removing any captioned posts that do not condemn the content. It’s a highly unusual move for the platform, which typically lets user flags guide moderation. The Verge is unaware of any previous moderation effort in which individual employees have assessed every shared caption for a given URL.

It’s still unclear whether Facebook’s response was a one-off reaction to extreme circumstances, or the beginning of a broader shift in moderation. The company insists its policies haven’t changed, despite the unusual enforcement effort. The same question is raised by recent bans at Airbnb, GoFundMe, and other platforms — and in nearly all cases, it remains unanswered.

For Hankes, who sees the Daily Stormer as just one of hundreds of hate sites on the internet, that’s the most important question. “It’s going to be interesting to see how companies react to this,” he says. “There’s still a lot to clean up.”

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