WHO OWNS the Internet? That is the question at the core of the controversy over whether companies offering essential Web services are right to drive havens of hate offline. This week they booted the social media site Gab after a man who vowed violence on the platform was charged with murdering 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
There has been plenty of debate over whether platforms such as Facebook should tolerate racist rhetoricians or misinformation-mongers, but less over what happens when the platform itself becomes the problem. Gab was created to support speech that more mainstream sites deemed unacceptable. Now, payment processors have deemed Gab’s own failure to moderate even the most deplorable and dangerous speech unacceptable, too. So have hosting providers and domain-name registers. That, for now, has resulted in the site’s disappearance from the Web.
Gab’s plight highlights a central conundrum of digital governance. It is one thing for a site to tell a user they must take their hate elsewhere. It is another for the actors who control the Internet’s infrastructure to prevent the site itself from operating. With the digital security provider Cloudflare still on its side, Gab may manage to survive using a new domain and a new server, all in a darker corner of the Web. But the site’s access to the system where so many Americans talk, listen and live has been meaningfully reduced.
To many people, that is a development worth celebrating. The bigotry on Gab hardly seems in need of protection. While the Internet may feel like a public square, it is not the only public square; anti-Semites and their odious ilk can always protest peacefully in city streets. The massacre in Pittsburgh also showed, once again, that what happens online spills easily into the real world. Gab cultivated a cesspool for violence to bloom in, and many believe that its absence from the Internet will make the country safer.
At the same time, however, plenty of liberal-minded Americans view the Web as a utility to which everyone deserves equal access. This is the same argument that undergirds net neutrality: Powerful corporations should not control who reaches whom and how easily because the Internet is too integral to daily life. A handful of players with little accountability to the public deciding at a whim whether a site may exist should make all of us queasy.
In the end, companies have the legal right to deny service to the Gabs of the world. But if managers of the pipeline of Internet access that have always presented themselves as content-neutral begin to change course, they should do so thoughtfully and transparently — laying out their rules and the philosophy behind them, providing explanations to violators and perhaps even instituting appeals processes. As they deliberate, they should consider an inconvenient possibility: If the Internet belongs to everyone, it might belong to Gab, too.