SAN FRANCISCO — A year ago, Andrew Torba would have balked at the idea of regulating the Internet. He is a conservative, and like many other technologists here, he adheres to the long-standing Silicon Valley belief in a free and open Web, unhindered by government interference.
But things changed in wake of violence in Charlottesville, when one technology company after another shut down or cut off service to right-wing accounts and sites.
Today, Torba is part of a growing chorus of right-leaning technologists and leaders who have started to sound more like liberals when they talk about Silicon Valley giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook.
Events in Charlottesville and at Google, where an employee was fired for disparaging the company’s diversity policies, have pushed them toward an unexpected battle cry: Tell the government to force powerful Internet companies to allow anyone to express themselves on their platforms.
The issue is beginning to percolate in Washington. And it is expected to take center stage this weekend when right-wing protesters are planning to descend on the liberal heart of the nation’s tech sector. The groups are holding rallies in San Francisco on Saturday and near the campus of the University of California at Berkeley on Sunday.
The Saturday event in San Francisco, organized by Patriot Prayer, a group from Portland, Ore., is billed as a free speech rally, while organizers of the Berkeley gathering are calling it a “No to Marxism” march on their Facebook page.
The leaders for both rallies wrote on Facebook that the KKK and neo-Nazis were not welcome. (They did not respond to requests for comment).
“The tech companies should stop censoring users that they politically disagree with or governments should regulate them as public utilities,” Torba’s spokesman Utsav Sanduja said. Last year, Sanduja and Torba founded Gab.ai, an alternative social network for free speech advocates. “Imagine if a private corporation owned all the highways and they decided to close them down whenever they feel like it — that is what it's like. You cannot deny people a fundamental staple of the Internet.”
The language by the Gab founders and other conservatives mirrors Democrats’ long-standing arguments that telecommunications infrastructure should be treated as a public good. But liberals have been more hands off when it comes to social media and other Silicon Valley-provided services.
Conservatives have always been an anomaly in Silicon Valley, but they've been particularly vilified since President Trump’s election.
Many say they purposely hide their political beliefs from colleagues and peers.
For instance, after their election night party held in Twitter headquarters near downtown San Francisco, local GOP leaders said they advised victorious attendees to consider removing their red Make America Great Again hats before they went back out on the city’s main thoroughfare.
“It's like being gay in the 1950s,” said one prominent conservative technologist who spoke on the condition that he not be named.
Some in Silicon Valley — who say they do not espouse the talking points of the “alt-right” or support the positions of the neo-Nazi organizers of the Charlottesville rally — say they are being roped in with extremists and that their voices have been drowned out. They say that tech giants are becoming the online enforcers of a liberal point of view and the gatekeepers of all political expression, with little checks on their power.
“For many on the right, not just the fringe but the mainstream, Silicon Valley just has no credibility when it comes to policing public speech because of the way that ‘Big Tech’s’ internal culture seems to close down private speech — the sense that tech firms are the enemies of free expression if you have a viewpoint that diverges from standard liberal ideology,” said Steve Hilton, a Fox News host based in Silicon Valley and chief executive of Crowdpac, a political fundraising website.
Torba, an outspoken Trump supporter who calls himself a Christian conservative, was kicked out of the prominent technology incubator Y-Combinator after calling fellow entrepreneurs in the community “cucks” and using the f-word in a heated Facebook discussion about racism after the election.
Y-Combinator said Torba was harassing fellow entrepreneurs. Torba said he was kicked out for espousing conservative views.
Like many fellow engineers, Torba has long believed that tech start-ups thrive with as little government regulation as possible. But he started to change his mind, Sanduja said, after the company's app was rejected from Apple's app store in January. In rejecting the app, Apple said Gab had violated its policies by hosting pornographic material, among other reasons.
Last week, Google also banned Gab from the Google Play Store, citing violations of the company's hate speech policies. Neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin had become an active user on Gab after a succession of companies refused to service his site. Other controversial right-wing figures, including Milo Yiannopoulos and Andrew “weev” Auernheimer, also are on Gab.
Gab.ai has raised over a million dollars in contributions since last month, Sanduja said.
The atmosphere for conservatives became a lot more complex after the Charlottesville protests, in which dozens were injured and one woman was killed after a Nazi sympathizer plowed his car into a crowd of demonstrators.
In response to the protests, a striking number of technology companies, from Facebook to PayPal to Google to GoDaddy and even OkCupid — blocked or shut down service to alt-right and white supremacist accounts.
The move reflected a stunning turnabout for the tech industry, which has long been reluctant to police their platforms in this way, even as most have policies prohibiting hate speech.
Conservatives were already fuming from events two weeks earlier, when James Damore, a Google engineer, was fired by the search giant after publishing a long memo in a corporate chat room in which he protested the company's diversity policies and promoted negative stereotypes about women.
The calls for more federal oversight of tech giants have made their way to Washington.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said in recent weeks that he was worried about “large tech companies putting their thumb on the scales and skewing political and public discourse.”
In the days after Charlottesville, alt-right leaders such as Richard Spencer made populist calls to regulate tech giants and decried tech monopolies. Former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon reportedly made similar assertions earlier this month.
Meanwhile, a memo about turning the regulation of Internet companies into a GOP plank recently circulated among operatives in Washington, according to several news reports.
Democrats have also called for more regulation of Wall Street but until recently have largely taken a hands-off approach to Silicon Valley. Now they too are becoming more willing to criticize technology companies.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) recently called for greater scrutiny of Amazon. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has honed in on tech monopolies. Strengthening antitrust enforcement was part of new populist-leaning policy proposals put forth by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
All of this means that Silicon Valley, which for so long has enjoyed the support of the public and politicians alike, may have a more fraught path in Washington.
“The more that they drift down these lines, the more they will attract political enemies and that will lead to more regulations,” said Aaron Ginn, the co-founder and president of the Lincoln Network, which seeks to use technology to promote liberty in the public space.
Ginn does not agree with the calls to regulate tech monopolies. Tech companies, he said, “are encouraging political tribalism and the splintering of tech products previously viewed as agnostic.”