The media today: The death penalty of the internet

It started with a tweet. Amy Siskind, founder of the New Agenda, called out GoDaddy on Sunday for hosting The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, after it posted a hateful, misogynist, and obscene article about Heather Heyer, the woman killed during the Charlottesville protests last weekend. GoDaddy’s response was swift and decisive: It gave the website 24 hours to find another provider. According to a GoDaddy spokesperson, the website’s Charlottesville coverage violated the company’s terms of service: “Given this latest article comes on the immediate heels of a violent act, we believe this type of article could incite additional violence.”

For some, GoDaddy’s decision comes too late. Activists, including organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, pushed for the world’s largest domain name seller to jump ship on the site several months ago. Since its announcement, though, there’s been a ripple effect. Google kicked The Daily Stormer off Google Domains and YouTube for “unspecified terms-of-service violations.” The decision by GoDaddy and Google is the equivalent of the “internet death penalty,” according to Slate. The Daily Stormer then tried to register a domain in Russia and China, but both countries said, “no thanks.” And so the neo-Nazi site retreated to the dark web, a series of websites only accessible through networks like Tor.

Now Cloudflare, a prominent internet company (which drew major ire in May), is turning its back on The Daily Stormer. Back in 2013, Cloudflare said it was “not in the business of censoring websites and will not deny its services to even the most offensive purveyors of hate,” ProPublica reported, summarizing the words of the company’s CEO, Matthew Prince. But yesterday Cloudflare reversed its stance. As Gizmodo reported, it booted The Daily Stormer from its services.

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It seems pretty straightforward. Neo-Nazis are bad, and they shouldn’t be given a platform to espouse hate and violence. But censorship always comes with a question: What precedent is this setting, and what does it mean for free expression? When it comes to offensive content, internet companies have generally opted for a hands-off approach, “erring on the side of maintaining an open internet,” wrote Gizmodo.

Cloudflare’s Prince cautioned against internet companies policing content in his letter explaining the decision to boot The Daily Stormer. It shouldn’t be up to CEOs like him, he wrote: “We need to have a discussion around this, with clear rules and clear frameworks. My whims and those of Jeff [Bezos] and Larry [Page] and Satya [Nadella] and Mark [Zuckerberg], that shouldn’t be what determines what should be online.” In Slate, Will Oremus explains the potential slippery slope of these companies stepping in: “The distinction between the Daily Stormer and an antifa site, or even a Black Lives Matter site, might seem clear as day to those urging GoDaddy to intervene against the former. Yet if our president himself finds them equivalent, it isn’t hard to imagine a private tech-infrastructure firm deciding to ban the latter along with the former.” It’s a complex conversation, and one that will continue in the weeks ahead. More on this below.

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Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.