Online censorship has been very much in the news over the past couple of weeks after the dreadful events in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned US focus onto the country’s far-right minority.
A protest march by far-right extremist groups and neo-Nazis turned ugly, resulting in an incident where a protester drove a car into a crowd of anti-Nazi protestors, killing one girl, Heather Hayer, and injuring many more.
The response of the far-right media in the USA to this incident drew condemnation from across the country and beyond. One article, on the neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer, drew particular ire. The site published a piece which described the victim as a “fat, childless, 32-year-old sl**” and referred to her as a “drain on society” and of “no value”.
The internet’s response to this article was swift and brutal. As well as Anonymous swiftly hacking the Daily Stormer website, their host, Go Daddy, gave them 24 hours to relocate saying they had breached their terms of service.
Subsequent hosts Google and CloudFlare threw them off too and they eventually related to Russia, where even the Russian Internet Regulator, Roskomnadzor, demanded they move on.
CloudFlare CEO dilemma
Matthew Prince, the CEO for CloudFlare, was particularly open and transparent about his thought-process in throwing them off his service. In a blog posted on the company website, Prince described the people behind the Daily Storm as “hateful” and “vile” and stated that it was Daily Storm writers implying that Cloudfare were supportive of their views that ultimately led to the decision.
But his initial decision seems to have been a spur of the moment one. In an internal memo, Prince admitted that “Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet.”
The first person to question whether this should be allowed was Prince himself, who wrote in the same memo, “I think we have to have a conversation over what part of the infrastructure stack is right to police content.”
“We need to have a discussion around this, with clear rules and clear frameworks. My whims and those of Jeff [Bezos] and Larry [Page] and Satya [Nadella] and Mark [Zuckerberg], that shouldn’t be what determines what should be online,” he continued. “I think the people who run The Daily Stormer are abhorrent. But again, I don’t think my political decisions should determine who should and shouldn’t be on the internet.”
A necessary debate on online freedom of speech
In being so open about why CloudFlare removed the Daily Stormer, Prince has opened up a much wider debate about online censorship. It is a healthy debate to be having and it is good that more people are becoming aware of it. However, we must be careful not to allow raised emotions after Charlottesville to cloud our judgement.
Freedom of speech is a global right which is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is not something that should be curtailed just because others find what is being said offensive.
Most people were appalled by the comments published on the Daily Stormer about Heather Hayer. But does that mean they shouldn’t have the right to say it? For that matter, shouldn’t they also have the right to voice the rest of their hateful Nazi rhetoric? If it doesn’t provoke violence or criminal acts and is within the law, do they not have as much right as anyone else to say what they think?
Rights campaign groups tend to be focused at the liberal end of the political spectrum. But if they become defined by that, their moral high ground begins to be undermined. This is why cases such as the American Civil Liberties Union’s backing of ‘alt-right’ journalist Milo Yiannopoulos in a case against the Washington DC transit system, which censored adverts for his book, is so important.
No individual or company should be able to determine what is or isn’t allowed to be said or written. This is as true online as it is offline. The task of agreeing on reasonable boundaries and regulations is not an easy one, but it has to be the way forward. Any other approach risks seeing individual and online freedoms being increasingly curtailed.
That road leads inexorably towards an ultimate endpoint, which is Chinese-style censorship and ‘cyber-sovereignty’. That would be a tragedy both for freedom of speech and online freedoms and must be avoided at all costs. And if this means a few crackpot neo-Nazis get to say some hateful things online, then so be it.
No-one has to read them what they write and, of course, no one should want to. But they must retain the right to write it.