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Google, other tech companies warned over ‘dangerous’ banning of neo-Nazis, hate groups

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

August 21, 2017


SAN JOSE, Calif. — Neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer has been pushed offline or perhaps to the dark web by GoDaddy, Google and Cloudflare, which one by one made it impossible for the news and commentary provider to keep operating after it published an article that criticized a woman who died during last weekend’s violent protests in Charlottesville, Va.

But the Electronic Frontier Foundation is warning of the dangers of censoring speech, no matter how horrendous or offensive.

"All fair-minded people must stand against the hateful violence and aggression that seems to be growing across our country," the San Francisco-based online advocacy group said 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."

For example, the EFF mentioned that some people want to label Black Lives Matter as a hate group, and that the NAACP has been a target since the Civil Rights era.

Many of the tech CEOs who have taken action in the wake of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville have explained their moves.

Even as San Francisco-based Cloudflare’s CEO stripped the Daily Stormer of its security services this week, Matthew Prince acknowledged "no one should have that power."

In a tweeted statement Thursday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said "the challenge and best response is to speak out, to give hatred no place to fester." But he added that "it’s often hard for people to find common ground and to work out the best ways to counter the swelling tide of hatred and terrorism." (Google booted the Daily Stormer from its domain registry earlier this week. The site had moved to Google after being kicked out by GoDaddy.)

Meanwhile, Apple confirmed Thursday that it is pulling Apple Pay support from certain sites that sell white supremacist merchandise.

"Regardless of your political views, we must all stand together on this one point — that we are all equal," Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote in an email to employees this week as he announced donations to anti-hate groups.

PayPal and crowdfunding sites also said this week that they have cut off payment support for white supremacists and hate groups.

"Maintaining the necessary balance between protecting the principles of tolerance, diversity and respect for people of all backgrounds with upholding legitimate free expression and open dialogue can be difficult, but we do our very best to achieve it," Franz Paasche, PayPal’s senior vice president of Corporate Affairs & Communications, said in a blog post Tuesday.

As free-speech advocates point out the slippery slope that is censorship, the hard questions remain as other tech companies continue to censor and ban.

What’s acceptable censorship, if any? If cutting off certain groups’ money source makes freedom-lovers queasy, what about dating site OKCupid’s banning of a white supremacist? Or Spotify’s removal of "hate" songs?

And what about social media?

Twitter has banned white supremacists from its site. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post this week that the social network is taking down posts that promote or celebrate hate crimes, adding that "we won’t always be perfect."

The hard questions vex the offline world, too. The ACLU, which has historically supported the First Amendment rights of hate groups, said this week — after the violence at Charlottesville — that it is changing its stance when such groups seek to march or protest while armed. The Virginia branch of the ACLU helped secure permits for the Unite the Right march last weekend.

But back to online. The EFF warns that censorship at the top level — domains, content delivery systems — are "most sensitive to pervasive censorship."

"They are free speech’s weakest links," the EFF writes. "It’s the reason why millions of net neutrality advocates are concerned about ISPs censoring their feeds. Or why, when the handful of global payment processors unite to block certain websites (like Wikileaks) worldwide, we should be concerned."

When reached Friday, Google told The Mercury News that it would have no comment beyond this: "We are cancelling Daily Stormer’s registration with Google Domains for violating our terms of service."