Following Charlottesville, Companies Are Laying Down The Hammer. But What’s The Criteria?

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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A number of companies are clamping down on customers, products and content that may be associated with bigoted principles, but not all seem to have an exact criteria for their respective restrictions.

From social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube, to domain management firms like Google, GoDaddy and Cloudflare, several companies are participating in the boycott in order to cut ties with white supremacist groups in the aftermath of Charlottesville. The moves are politically expedient, but raise questions about how and where these companies are drawing the line on hate groups.

Google, for example, booted the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer from its domain services. Spotify purged “hate” music from its platform based on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) list of “hate bands,” reports Billboard, which has been around for years. Dozens of the SPLC’s other enumerated “hate groups,” as well as the potentially “hateful” songs, remain virtually intact, begging the question: How do such companies decide which ones can stay and which ones must go?

“As a consumer, I am not wild about businesses inquiring into my motivation, and deciding whether I am a nice person or not,” Eugene Volokh, professor at the UCLA School of Law, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “So as a consumer I might find a reason to be skeptical of the business in the future, even if I don’t share the views of those the business is excluding,” he continued, adding that the legality of it is rather clear.

TheDCNF tracked down some of these companies to get a better idea of their methodology.

GoDaddy, the popular web address registrar company, threatened to remove The Daily Stormer earlier this week if it did not find a new domain.

A representative for the firm told TheDCNF while they don’t condone content that “advocates expressions of hate, racism and bigotry,” they “generally do not take action on complaints that would constitute censorship of content and that represents the exercise of freedom of speech and expression on the Internet.”

Nevertheless, GoDaddy deals with such situations on a case by case basis. The Daily Stormer crossed its somewhat ambiguous threshold because it was “promoting, encouraging, or otherwise engaging in violence against” a person or peoples.

In less than 24 hours, Google Domains also cleansed it from its platform, for “violating our terms of service,” a representative told TheDCNF.

The onus was then on Cloudflare, another company that manages domain names and offers hacking protection, to suspend services with The Daily Stormer. It ultimately acquiesced to public pressure.

Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince said despite finding the website “vile,” the decision to remove The Daily Stormer makes him “deeply uncomfortable,” according to Business Insider.

“The tipping point for us making this decision was that the team behind Daily Stormer made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology,” Prince said in an official blog post. “Like a lot of people, we’ve felt angry at these hateful people for a long time but we have followed the law and remained content neutral as a network. We could not remain neutral after these claims of secret support by Cloudflare.”

While Prince expresses that “Establishing a Framework” for content restrictions will take time, its blog post is far more extensive and considerate of the potential implications than other companies’ views.

Crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe shut down any pages trying to raise money for the legal defense of James Fields — the 20-year-old neo-Nazi charged with second degree murder after driving a sports car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Va., killing one, and injuring several others.

“We don’t tolerate the promotion of hate or intolerance of any kind, and if a campaign violates GoFundMe’s terms of service, we’ll remove it from the platform,” Bobby Whithorne, director of strategic communications at GoFundMe, told TheDCNF. “We’ll continue to enforce our terms of service for all campaigns across the site.”

Dating site OkCupid is contributing to the collective crackdown, after it announced Thursday it deleted the account of tearful, white supremacist Chris Cantwell. “There’s no room for hate in a place where you’re looking for love,” the company cleverly subtweeted on its own virtual statement.

“OkCupid has zero tolerance for racism,” Elie Seidman, CEO of OkCupid, said in a statement provided to TheDCNF. “We make a lot of decisions every day that are tough. This was not one of them.”

The company said it was able to confirm Cantwell violated its official terms and conditions. While those rules don’t specifically cite “hate,” it explicitly “reserves the right, at its sole discretion, to deny further or continuing access to the Website to any visitor.”

YouTube also ended the account of the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, according to Bloomberg. YouTube did not respond to TheDCNF’s request for comment, but announced plans earlier in the month to get tougher on hate speech and violent extremism.

“If we find that these videos don’t violate our policies but contain controversial religious or supremacist content, they will be placed in a limited state,” the company said in a blog post. “The videos will remain on YouTube behind an interstitial, won’t be recommended, won’t be monetized, and won’t have key features including comments, suggested videos, and likes.”

Apple discontinued its payment systems on websites that purvey merchandise associated with white supremacy and Nazism because it also doesn’t offer its services for sites that promote “hate, intolerance, and violence.”

PayPal, the online payment platform, proclaimed Tuesday that it removed at least 34 organizations, according to The Washington Post. One of those groups was the infamous Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute, which sells firearm accessories labeled for the killing of Muslims.

Apple did not respond to TheDCNF’s request for comment, while PayPal referred the organization to a blog post it published Tuesday.

Three major credit card companies, Visa, MasterCard and Discover, all expressed interest in re-evaluating or ending its customer agreements with radical sites.

A spokeswoman for Twitter said its rules “prohibit violent threats, harassment, hateful conduct, and multiple account abuse, and we will take action on accounts violating those policies.” The social media company suspended The Daily Stormer’s account earlier this week. When asked how it determines what constitutes “violent threats” and the like, the rep referred TheDCNF to its “Hateful conduct policy,” which says enforcement takes into account “context” and “behavior.”

“Some Tweets may seem to be abusive when viewed in isolation, but may not be when viewed in the context of a larger conversation,” the page reads.

Airbnb, the online marketplace for lodging services, cancelled bookings for anyone who wanted to attend the “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville. Following the violence during those demonstrations, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky announced that “Airbnb will continue to stand for acceptance, and we will continue to do all we can to enforce our community commitment.” (RELATED: California Fines Woman $5,000 For Refusing Housing Services To An Asian Guest)

Airbnb didn’t communicate directly with TheDCNF, but did say in a statement, according to The Verge, that it was able to detect the people pursuing “antiethical” behavior on its platform and subsequently ban them. How it was able to determine and spot the bigoted users, however, is not clear.

Music-streaming platform Spotify also joined in on the suppression of certain content. Using the SPLC’s list of “hate bands,” Spotify removed an array of music content.

“Illegal content or material that favors hatred or incites violence against race, religion, sexuality or the like is not tolerated by us,” a Spotify spokesman told TheDCNF. “Spotify takes immediate action to remove any such material as soon as it has been brought to our attention,” the rep added, while declining to clarify how it determines what material encourages violence against a certain societal group.

“In general, one could argue that music, like any art form, is just another medium through which political speech is promulgated,” Ryan Hagemann, director of technology policy at the think tank the Niskanen Center, told TheDCNF. “I think that’s broadly correct, but Spotify is a private company and it’s fully within its rights to curate the types of artistic expression it makes available to consumers.”

Volokh for the most part agrees, saying the law is rather clear in this instance on what private companies can and cannot do.

“Generally speaking, businesses are free to do business with whomever they please, and not do business with whomever they please. Now there are some exceptions” due to different statues in state and cities, like Seattle, Volokh said, referring to the oft-cited legal and moral situation in which bakers are forced by law to make a cake for certain patrons. “Generally speaking, these laws do not ban discrimination on political ideology.”

Federal law, according to Volokh, applies to internet services because of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, specifically Section 230, meaning political ideology is not covered in the anti-discrimination laws, unlike sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, or religion. That section empowers internet services providers of various sorts with the ability to decide what material to include or exclude without the fear of liability.

So these maneuvers are legal, but whether they will be good for business is not immediately evident.

“These moves clearly signal to the broader American community that the type of hateful rhetoric espoused by Nazis and the KKK are not welcomes on these platforms,” said Hagemann. “And that’s a good thing, for both their business and society as a whole.”

Volokh explained that if a company doesn’t want to do business with a certain customer, than it’s not usually too difficult to find a willing one. He said he is “pretty skeptical” that every single domain registrar, for example, refused The Daily Stormer service, since so many exist, including several hosted in other countries.

Andrew Auernheimer, a somewhat prominent neo-Nazi who contributes to The Daily Stormer, appears to be using, an alternative to Twitter that employs the top domain of Anguilla, to coordinate with other followers of the neo-Nazi website. Google removed Gab from its app store for violating its “hate speech policy,” but Gab is still available on its own website and mobile devices, just not through the app store.

Volokh said that if the government is pressuring these domain registrars, than it’s a different situation. He explained he would need ample amounts of evidence that proves every web hosting site refused services to a certain group. Only after obtaining proof, would he entertain the idea of “a requirement that they provide services to all comers, the way it has been done for certain monopolies, like phone companies” which are not allowed to refuse service based on ideology.

“I don’t think that’s called for,” he added, “and I generally don’t support these kinds of restrictions on private business in the great bulk of situations where there are lots of competitors.”

As to where the line should be drawn, which is of course up to the company, it is not an easy question, at least for some.

“The type of speech associated with Nazis and white supremacists does not fall into the bucket of a peaceful exchange of ideas and is not morally equivalent to other forms of political speech. It is terrorist propaganda, plain and simple,” Hagemann explained. “We don’t tolerate the spread of ISIS propaganda or al Qaeda recruitment efforts through social media, so why should we permit the same type of propaganda from Nazis?”

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