The Slippery Problem of Policing Hate on the Internet

Navneet Alang, The Week, August 18, 2017

When my septuagenarian father first started to use the internet a decade ago, he was amazed at the wealth of content, the sheer endlessness of it — until he read the comments. “Anyone can just say anything they want to?” he asked me incredulously after scrolling underneath a YouTube video. I explained to him that this was both the up- and downside of the new medium: In reducing the barriers to having a platform, inevitably, things both brilliant and awful would make their way there. He understood, but remained disheartened.

For a time, the giants that began to dominate digital — the Googles, Facebooks, and Twitters of the world — allowed and even encouraged this neutral approach to content. But no longer, it seems.

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It began with GoDaddy, which provides the domain names that we know as web addresses. After a post on white supremacist website The Daily Stormer criticizing Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer drew a surge of criticism, the domain registrar cut off the site’s web address. When The Daily Stormer tried to move to Google, they too quickly acted to block them. They were followed by other companies: Apple stopped allowing its Pay service to work on white supremacist sites, and so did PayPal.

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It can, as an observer, feel good to see them help cut off oxygen to the pernicious and insidious viewpoints now so plainly and terrifyingly in view.

But the ambivalence of these moves was crystallized when Cloudflare, a company that acts as a buffer for sites to prevent hacking and denial of service attacks, also cut off its services from The Daily Stormer — not because of a strict content violation, but because white supremacists started to say Cloudflare supported racist views. In a memo, CEO Matthew Prince, who has long maintained a content-neutral approach despite hating the views of some sites, said his move was essentially arbitrary and convenient: that Cloudflare kicked off The Daily Stormer so it could get out from under a cloud, and only then could the real discussion about how to regulate content begin.

And the problem is a sticky one. After all, Google, GoDaddy et al are private companies, and their reactions can be both moral and driven by PR.

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Making matters worse is that relying on the good will of tech companies is additionally risky given the culture of tech itself. As seen by the rise of Facebook-backer Peter Thiel, and the strong support given to now infamous “Google Manifesto” author James Damore, there is a strong libertarian, reactionary streak in Silicon Valley.

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This is the ubiquitous tension of market-based solutions to social problems: They are random, driven by sentiment rather than principle, and can go wrong very quickly.

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But it is just that murkiness that raises the specter that elicits terror in most techies and users alike: not just self-regulation by tech companies, but regulation by the state.

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At this moment in history, it appears we risk seeing reactionary, racist forces threaten to build and coalesce. What is at stake on this now ubiquitous medium is not, say, merely the offended sensibilities of my elderly father — questions about what can or should be said online — but, rather, the kind of social infrastructure and culture we might want to build for our children.

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