Don't Kick Nazis Off the Internet
Neo-Nazis are having a hard time doing business these days. After a white-supremacist rally in Virginia ended in violence last month, a pressure campaign has induced a lengthening list of companies to shut down accounts used by the participants and their fellow travelers. From dating apps to ride-sharing services, seemingly every right-thinking company is joining in the crackdown.
That may seem like a triumph for simple decency. In fact, it risks setting a dangerous precedent.
Consider a vile neo-Nazi website called The Daily Stormer. After the rally, both Google and GoDaddy Inc. stopped hosting the site’s domain registration, and Cloudflare Inc. stopped protecting it from cyberattacks. Such services are the nuts-and-bolts of online life. And in refusing to deal with The Daily Stormer, they effectively kicked it off the internet.
So much the better for the internet, you might say. But it isn’t so simple. Cloudflare, for one, had second thoughts. “It doesn’t sit right to have a private company, invisible but ubiquitous, making editorial decisions about what can and cannot be online,” wrote Matthew Prince, the company’s co-founder.
He’s right. Such companies are perfectly entitled to drop odious customers. But expecting them to arbitrate public discourse is fraught with risks. Domain registrars are generally neutral about the content of their users’ sites, and rightly so: As crucial conduits, they have outsized power over who can express themselves online. “The pre-internet analogy would be if Ma Bell listened in on phone calls and could terminate your line if it didn’t like what you were talking about,” as Prince put it.
Practical problems also abound. Exactly what content should they accept and what should they ban? Nazis may seem like an easy call. But with tens of millions of users, expressing all manner of views, these companies don’t have the capacity -- much less the desire -- to parse the politics of their customers and distinguish between appropriate and offensive speech.
More to the point, no one should want them to. Nazis, however repulsive, have the same speech rights as every other American. In demanding that back-end web companies kick them off the internet for legally protected expression, activists are effectively asking them to limit public debate -- according to whatever vague or opaque corporate principles they might dream up. Do you trust GoDaddy with that responsibility?
Remember, too, that the pressure won’t end with Nazis. Some right-wing groups are already asking whether companies plan to ban Black Lives Matter activists. In polarized times, such calls -- however ludicrous -- are likely to expand and intensify. As Milton Friedman once put it, expecting companies to take a stand on such issues would “extend the scope of the political mechanism to every human activity.”
Nazis should face protest, and their hideous beliefs should be denounced. When they harm others, they must be held to account. But corporations -- or, more precisely, their lawyers -- are the wrong mediators for any such debate. The endgame is that controversial views of all kinds will be driven from the internet. And that isn’t in anyone’s interest.
--Editors: Tim Lavin, Clive Crook.
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