Constitutional Law

Shutting Down a Neo-Nazi Website Can Be More Dangerous Than the Neo-Nazis

In an article published last night, TThe Electronic Frontier Foundation makes strong arguments why it was wrong for Google. Cloudflare and GoDaddy to refuse to continue to manage the domain of The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website and magazine. Allowing these major controllers of the Internet to shut a site down based on legal content – repulsive, yes but legal – is dangerous. Who is to say what the next CEO of these companies may deem offensive or likely “to incite violence.” Certainly the ACLU and the NAACP faced similar charges years ago. Our country is bigger and better than The Daily Stormer. We can tolerate its existence and combat its influence through activism and education and like everything else on the Internet – better content. Once we open this door, it will be harder to argue for Net Neutrality – a looming legal battle taht could change the face of the Internet. To quote from the article: “If the entities that run the domain name system started choosing who could access or add to them based on political considerations, we might well face a world where every government and powerful body would see itself as an equal or more legitimate invoker of that power.”

Lets look at what happened to The Daily Stormer. After the murder of Heather Heyer, the activist run over by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, the Daily Stormer delighted in her death highlighting that at 32 she still had not produced offspring, which in their mind is the only reason women exist on the planet. Of course, the article received condemnation from nearly every corner of the country. Then the powers that be determined that this opinion (and that’s what it is – an opinion) was an “incitement to violence.” First, the domain registrar GoDaddy dropped the site; Google Domains and others quickly followed suit. But there remained one notable holdout: Cloudflare, a server company that specializes in protecting websites against hacks, was still serving the Daily Stormer— insisting, as it has in the past when challenged to defend controversial clients – that policing online speech is not and should not be its job. Then all of a sudden. two days ago, Cloudflare joined the others and stopped servicing the site, effectively taking it off the Internet. Here is what their CEO Matthew Prince said:

Let me be clear: this was an arbitrary decision. . .. I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet. … It was a decision I could make because I’m the CEO of a major Internet infrastructure company. Having made that decision, we now need to talk about why it is so dangerous.. .. Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power. After today, make no mistake, it will be a little bit harder for us to argue against a government somewhere pressuring us into taking down a site they don’t like.

This document can take it

Well, thanks for the half-assed apology Prince. You recognize its dangerous, your recognize that it goes against your policy, and you recognize that it opens the door to pressure from others to take down other sites. You could have shown a spine and defended, not the Neo-Nazis, but the First Amendment. The First Amendment after all is unique to America. Europe speech is far more restricted than ours. For example you cannot display Nazi symbols in Germany, and it is much easier for publishers and the media to be sued for libel and defamation. The right of Nazis to march in the public square was recognized by the United States Supreme Court in Skokie v. Illinois. Well, the Internet is essentially the new public square. Its strength and beauty lies in the power it offers to opinion and information. It needs to be as unfettered and unrestrained as possible. And for the 1,000th time this week, “Hate speech is protected speech.” There are already laws in place that would prosecute the actors if they crossed the line of speech and opinion and actually incited people to violence. And remember please that inspiring people to violence is not inciting people to violence. After weeks and weeks of planning this White Pride march in Charlottesville, about 200 yahoos showed up. Clearly, this segment of the alt-right is a fringe element of American society. Yes they are here, yes they are real and yes they are dangerous, and yes, the President seems to enjoy their support, but they are not sufficiently large in number to warrant changing the Internet. We give them too much power that way. I am saying we merely tolerate or appease them. Far from it. But it is better to use the Internet to decry their methods and opinions. Better to denounce and throw out of office any elected official who equivocates in denouncing them. Better to counter-protest in larger numbers and to educate the populace in the falsity of their messages. Fight back with better ideas and tireless activism. They were horrifically wrong 70 years ago and they are horrifically wrong today. I loved the article I read this week about how a small German town combated their Neo-Nazi march. It seems that for decades, far-right extremists have marched through Wunsiedel in Bavaria every year. This year, the organizers of “Rechts gegen Rechts” (Right against Right) took a different approach to fight them. Without the marchers’ knowledge, local residents and businesses sponsored the 250 participants of the march in what was dubbed Germany’s “most involuntary walkathon”. For every meter they walked, ten Euro went to a program called EXIT Deutschland, which helps people escape these extremist groups. Campaigners hung humorous posters to make the march look more like a sporting event, with slogans like “If only the Führer knew!” and “Mein Mampf” (My munch”) next to a table laden with bananas. They even hung a sign at the end, thanking the marchers for their “donations.” The idea raised 10,000 euro and i am sure made the group think twice about marching next year. But even if they do, at least they raised money for a worthy cause while doing it.

Then there is the other effect of this censorship. I would rather that Daily Stormer operate on the World Wide Web than on the Dark Net or some other private network of servers. You think that by banning them from the Internet, they are simply going to go away? No. They will use this to recruit more members and they will find new more secretive ways to get their message out. This is likely to lead to even more violence. If we allow these fringe hate groups to prod us into changing the way we live our lives, we cow-tow to them. We can stand up to them without giving up our basic principles or giving them any indication of acceptance. But to react to them in this way can lead to far greater harm. I will leave it to the EFF to have the last word:

It might seem unlikely now that Internet companies would turn against sites supporting racial justice or other controversial issues. But if there is a single reason why so many individuals and companies are acting together now to unite against neo-Nazis, it is because a future that seemed unlikely a few years ago—that white nationalists and Nazis now have significant power and influence in our society—now seems possible. We would be making a mistake if we assumed that these sorts of censorship decisions would never turn against causes we love.

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3 replies on “Shutting Down a Neo-Nazi Website Can Be More Dangerous Than the Neo-Nazis”

This question is thorny as hell. While we do recognize limits on freedom of speech, e.g. yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater or inciting to violence, you are saying that these limits should be minimized, especially with regard to the internet. But the internet is relatively new and it has already shown clearly “the law of unintended consequences”. People with fringe or extremist views are able to recruit disaffected male youth without directly inciting them to violence. This has proved to be dangerous and gives the fringes far greater power than they had before the internet. If the internet is meant to be a marketplace of ideas where the good ones eclipse the bad ones, that purpose does not appear to be borne out by the facts. There were, per capita, more ‘neo-Nazis’ in the 1950’s than there are now, but their power was negligible without the internet.

I am not saying we should relax the current rules on speech for the Internet. Yelling Fire in a theater is not protected speech because it present an imminent danger of harm. The same is not true for yelling Fire (as it were) on the Internet because it is rarely a clear and present danger of harm. I have written extensively on this blog about the difference between a “true threat” and an opinion or just hyperbole. True threats are one of the few forms of prohibited speech that exist. But I have always said we don;t need a Fist Amendment to protect us from speech we agree with or that we want to hear. As to your statement that they are radicalizing people and recruiting, well could you stop them from doing that on a street corner or in a bar or through pamphlets, the way Thomas Paine recruited many people to the revolutionary cause. Either the ideas have merit and gain popularity and become the voice of populace or they die on the vine as these will just by the future of the sheer demographics. Attempting to silence them only martyrs them in their followers eyes, gives them an enemy, gives them credence.

” Either the ideas have merit and gain popularity and become the voice of populace or they die on the vine as these will just by the future of the sheer demographics”

Include me with Germany on passing on that bet with respect to Neo-Nazi’s (aka “alt-right”).

The internet is the first real, full blown test in history of the much talked up “marketplace of ideas.” The theory is failing miserably. 😝

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