Not everyone in Silicon Valley agrees with how big tech companies have responded to the violence that led to the death of a counterprotester at a rally by white supremacists in Charlottesville last week.
After Google and GoDaddy announced that they were booting a far-right website from their services, a major player in debates on civil liberties and digital privacy warned that this kind of censorship was not the right way to fight extremism and could even be dangerous.
“All fair-minded people must stand against the hateful violence and aggression that seems to be growing across our country,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in a blog post Thursday. “But we must also recognize that on the Internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with.” The EFF pointed out that in the civil rights era, it was the NAACP's right to express its views that came under attack.
The EFF's position on freedom of expression amid Silicon Valley's growing antagonism toward white supremacists reflects a division in the tech industry over how to combat extremist speech. A host of companies have refused their services to white supremacists or businesses tied to them, including Apple, Cloudflare and PayPal. But even some of those companies recognize the questions that arise in choosing to discriminate based on content.
“It’s important that what we did today not set a precedent,” Cloudflare chief executive Matthew Prince said in an email to employees after choosing to terminate service to the Daily Stormer, a known neo-Nazi website. “The right answer is for us to be consistently content neutral.”
The EFF does not dispute that tech platforms have the right to choose what kinds of speech to host or protect but noted that the decisions of Internet gatekeepers, such as GoDaddy and Google, have consequences that echo around the world. Entities such as foreign governments might invoke the same power to delist websites based on political considerations, the EFF warned, and other companies may feel free to ban Internet accounts without explanation or accountability.
Google confirmed in a statement that it had canceled the Daily Stormer's registration for violating its terms of service, but the company declined to comment on EFF's blog post.
The aggressive moves by Web companies have also raised questions about the power of tech platforms to control public spaces. “We take a lot of these sites and places for granted, but they are really private operations,” said Roy Gutterman, director at the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University.
Unlike the government, which is bound by the First Amendment, corporations have more power to exclude expression, Gutterman said. The companies' bold, assertive approach against extremist groups has heightened concerns that massive tech platforms are effectively becoming the arbiters of free speech in America.
“They don’t like the Nazis today, but tomorrow it's somebody else,” Gutterman said. “You may get to the point where you have a whimsical CEO who wants to delist a political group or a movement.”
The EFF said as much in its blog post: “Protecting free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected. 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.”
GoDaddy and Cloudflare did not immediately respond to a request for comment.