The events in Charlottesville have shamed America, and shocked the rest of the world. The sight of neo-Nazis marching through an American city conjures all kinds of horrors from a past many hoped the country would have moved on from.
Technology has come under intense fire for its part in allowing far-right groups to speak, assemble and carry out the sort of violence that, last weekend, led to the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal run down by a driver in the madness.
US President Donald Trump’s refusal to specifically denounce far-right violence, in the wake of the incident, split his party. It has also sparked an exodus on his own manufacturing council. Under Armor CEO Kevin Plank, Merck pharma chief Kenneth Frazier and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich all left the council in the wake of the President’s weak response, compounded by his almost-instant slamming of Frazier via Twitter.
Tesla founder Elon Musk and former Uber boss Travis Kalanick have both left Trump boards this year, following conservative White House moves. Their refusal to work with the Trump administration sends a clear message that tech will not stand for hatred and bigotry (even if, as multinational behemoths, their own practices have often fallen short of stellar).
WIRED yesterday lamented the lack of editorship online companies exercise when it comes to far-right speech. But the title, while treading a careful line between the condemnation of far-right speech and hate speech, conflates the two.
The tech industry “allows people with extremist ideologies to promote brands and beliefs on their platforms, as long as the violent rhetoric is swapped out for dog whistles and obfuscating language,” writes the magazine. Yet that is exactly the point: dog whistles and obfuscating language may be abhorrent to the majority of us, but they do not constitute hate speech–at least not in the legal sense. To censor opinions with which one disagrees contravenes the First Amendment. Tech should not cross that line.
Go Daddy and Discord took bold moves in the wake of Charlottesville. Discord dropped popular site altright.com. Go Daddy announced on Sunday that it would no longer serve the domain name for Dailystormer.com, a neo-Nazi publication that takes its name from the Nazi Party’s newspaper Der Stürmer.
The site then turned to Google to host its obviously hateful speech (one example: a call to “gas the k*kes”). Today, though, Google too turned its back on the outlet. “We are canceling Daily Stormer’s registration with Google Domains for violating our terms of service,” a spokesperson told Business Insider yesterday. Zoho, a California-based enterprise services company, also announced its split with the brand.
The reason why this took so long may have more to do with economics and brand management than human rights. But it does at least show that the tech industry has the power to limit the rising cacophony of hate speech that dominates many corners of the web.
Many digital brands already ban, or redirect, content associated with radical Islamist groups such as ISIS–YouTube even sends users who search for material to anti-ISIS videos. Why they have not done the same with far-right material probably has much to do with a nexus of public opinion, revenue and the fact that American free speech laws are among the toughest in the world.
Facebook, which has come under intense fire for its alleged use to rouse far-right rabbles, has vowed to increase its content monitoring–and to step in and censor when groups threaten real-life violence. The government should compel it to do this. Threats of violence are just that–whether online or not–and this weekend’s tragic events have shown just how violent an online-assembled group can be.
White supremacy, and other far-right activism, is more widespread, and nebulous, than that of fringe groups like ISIS. It would cost billions of dollars to curb–and companies may fall foul of free speech laws in the process. Censorship would be wrong. It forces hate underground and adds fuel to far-right conspiracies that the movement is being censored by a liberal elite.
Should far-right groups simply form their own sites–as is the case with Hatreon, Gab and Rebel Media’s proposed YouTube alternative–that would surely make the government’s job weeding hate speech from mere loathsome material far easier. For now, however, it is clear that this problem is very much both online and in real life. And if tech cannot do better at least to prevent violent protests from happening, America can expect more violence in the near future.