Tech Firms’ Fight Against Hate Could Haunt Them

Steven Overly and Ashley Gold, Politico, August 19, 2017

The tech industry’s crackdown on racism could complicate one of its biggest fights in Congress, where Silicon Valley is lobbying hard against legislation aimed at weeding out other harmful online content.

In opposing bills that target online sex trafficking, internet companies have argued that they provide platforms for the free exchange of data and should not be forced into serving as societal gatekeepers.

But at the same time, numerous tech companies have taken on the gatekeeper role with gusto this past week, using their power over the digital world to shut down neo-Nazi internet forums, kick white supremacists off of fund-raising, ride-sharing, lodging and dating websites, and otherwise limit hate groups’ ability to spread their influence online. Those included some of the industry’s biggest players, such as Google and Facebook.

Even with the best intentions, the industry’s reaction to last weekend’s white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va., raises complicated questions about who should determine what content is appropriate for the internet.

{snip}

Already, supporters of the sex-trafficking bills are citing the quick response to Charlottesville as a reason to proceed with legislation holding online providers liable for knowingly hosting content that facilitates trafficking. The industry has lined up in force against the bills, which would whittle away at protections it has long enjoyed under a section of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

{snip}

The two anti-trafficking bills, introduced just before Congress’ August recess, are part of a long-running congressional battle with Backpage.com, a classified-advertising website that drew notoriety for its adults-only section. The measures would also allow states — not just the federal government — to prosecute online companies for facilitating sex trafficking.

Under the 1996 law’s Section 230, online companies are not legally responsible for policing the vast quantities of material people create and share on their networks.

{snip}

Under current law, the companies can voluntarily take down material they consider inappropriate — as they did after Charlottesville.

{snip}

The tech industry’s crackdown began even before last weekend’s rally turned violent. Home-sharing website Airbnb jettisoned the accounts of users it suspected of renting rooms to attendees of the “Unite the Right” event.

Then the internet domain registrars at GoDaddy and Google kicked the neo-Nazi publication The Daily Stormer off their servers, saying the website’s content advocated violence and thus violated their terms of service. The prominent security and web performance company Cloudflare, which had been delivering The Daily Stormer protection from certain kinds of cyberattacks, terminated the site’s account because, as described in a blog post by CEO Matthew Prince, it had “made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology.”

Prince did not take the move lightly, writing in the blog post that it was a “dangerous” decision.

“Without a clear framework as a guide for content regulation, a small number of companies will largely determine what can and cannot be online,” he wrote.

Facebook removed an event page for the rally and deleted links to a Daily Stormer article that assailed a peaceful protester killed in Charlottesville, The Washington Post reported, while a few Twitter accounts tied to extremists were taken offline.

Web services where users raise or exchange money — including PayPal, Apple Pay, Kickstarter and GoFundMe — announced they would no longer welcome certain websites, individuals and accounts associated with hate groups.

Even dating site OkCupid tweeted Thursday that it had banned one user accused of being a white supremacist and asked members to report “people involved in hate groups.” “There is no room for hate in a place where you’re looking for love,” the company tweeted. Another dating app, Bumble, announced it’s urging users to flag and report others thought to be promoting hate speech.

{snip}

Topics:

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.