EFF: Silencing 'The Daily Stormer' Threatens Free Expression

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) criticized GoDaddy, Google, and Cloudflare's decisions to stop offering their services to The Daily Stormer neo-Nazi site. The digital rights organization said that effectively censoring The Daily Stormer could make it easier for companies to do the same with other, less obviously repugnant sites in the future, which could undermine the internet's ability to serve as a haven of free speech.

A quick refresher: The Daily Stormer is a website devoted to the alt-right and neo-Nazis. Earlier this week, GoDaddy gave the site 24 hours to find another host. Google refused to host the site. Not long after, Cloudflare decided to remove The Daily Stormer from its distributed-denial of service (DDoS) attack mitigation service. These decisions (plus some alleged hacking from Anonymous) made it hard for the site to stay online.

Note that First Amendment protections specifically apply to the governmental censorship; companies are free to manage their platforms however they like. GoDaddy, Google, and Cloudflare were all within their rights to bar The Daily Stormer from their services. (The First Amendment actually lets companies decide what appears on their platforms.) The question is how those decisions affect free speech as a principle.

As the EFF explained in its blog post about the issue:

[W]e strongly believe that what GoDaddy, Google, and Cloudflare did here was dangerous. That’s because, even when the facts are the most vile, we must remain vigilant when platforms exercise these rights. Because Internet intermediaries, especially those with few competitors, control so much online speech, the consequences of their decisions have far-reaching impacts on speech around the world.

Private companies and organizations do control how most people use the internet, which allows them to control how people communicate with each other. Barring certain speech from their platforms limits that speech's ability to find an audience. It's easy to support the decision to stifle some of that speech when you're talking about a neo-Nazi site; it would be much harder if the same companies disallowed less damaging speech.

That puts companies in the unenviable position of being accused of censorship if they don't allow hate speech on their platforms or of supporting that speech if they make sure it remains online. Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince addressed that issue when he explained that the company removed The Daily Stormer's access to its services because the site "made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology."

Not everyone landed on the same side of that quandary. After people discovered that The Daily Stormer moved to a Tor onion service, the Tor Project released a statement affirming its commitment to defending all types of speech, even if it's hateful. The organization said:

We are disgusted, angered, and appalled by everything these racists stand for and do. We feel this way any time the Tor network and software are used for vile purposes. But we can't build free and open source tools that protect journalists, human rights activists, and ordinary people around the world if we also control who uses those tools. Tor is designed to defend human rights and privacy by preventing anyone from censoring things, even us.

It's unclear how companies should move forward. Do they allow hate speech to remain online despite backlash from their customers and employees? Or do they raise fears about the possibility of them abusing their power by deciding what people can or cannot say? So far there is no consensus: The EFF and the Tor Project have sided with the former position, while GoDaddy, Google, and Cloudflare went with the latter.

Perhaps the only thing everyone can agree on is that giving private companies so much control over what speech is or isn't allowed online is dangerous. Individuals, rights organizations, and the companies themselves have all been worried about how The Daily Stormer was and will continue to be handled. And this is just one site—many others will continue to fan the flames of this debate about free speech and its limits.

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