Online Services and Free Speech

What's happening?

One white supremacist, marching in Charlottesville, bragged that his group was "stepping off the internet in a big way." That man, Robert Ray, is a writer for neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer. 

 

While they were able to meet up offline, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups are having trouble back on the internet. Service providers that the Daily Stormer depends on for people to access their site have refused to offer those services, making it difficult for the site—and others like it—to exist online.

 

Companies that provide online services like domain registration, hosting, and protection against cyber-attacks have refused service to neo-Nazi sites. Those companies include: GoDaddy, Google, Facebook, CloudFlare, Scaleway, as well as Chinese and Russian providers.

Why is it important?

The central question is: Should online companies be able to deny service to individuals because they disagree with their views? 

 

There's a difference between companies that allow you to exist on the internet, and companies that improve how you operate on the internet. The former, internet service providers (ISPs), are bound by net neutrality rules that classify high speed internet as a public utility.

 

The second, online service companies like Google, Facebook and CloudFlare, distribute, host and protect sites from cyber-attacks. These companies are not required to provide service to sites that they decide are violating their beliefs or terms of service.

 

Who online service companies decide to do business with has massive implications for individual sites. Some of these services are crucial for site stability and dominate their markets. CloudFlare alone handles around 10% of total Internet requests. As the CEO of CloudFlare himself put it, "without a clear framework as a guide for content regulation, a small number of companies will largely determine what can and cannot be online."

Debate it!

Should major online services be required to be content neutral?

No: 

You can—and should—be for net neutrality and against requirements for private online service companies to be content neutral. As journalist Brian Feldman explained the difference between the two, "requesting is different from hosting, and nobody has an inherent right to hosting space and site stability."

 

Contracts with client sites are longterm commitments in a service industry—more like partnerships than a single sale. "Retaining the Daily Stormer as a client by means of "content neutrality" is a moral decision," Feldman continues. "This isn’t like a Nazi going out and buying a pair of New Balances off the shelf with a one-time transaction. It is a sustained business arrangement with a monthly fee collected."

 

The situation is also fundamentally different from that of an internet service provider, which must uphold net neutrality. An ISP's decisions could unilaterally prevent users from loading a site; Nearly all online services are additional resources to support or enhance publishing and distribution. 

 

Take CloudFlare. Ending their service to the Daily Stormer doesn't come close to removing the site from the internet. Feldman again: "Cloudflare’s services are infrastructural add-ons that kept the site stable and occluded who was actually hosting it." Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin recognizes this. When CloudFlare announced the news, he wrote that it merely "adds another layer of super complexity, but we got this."

 

If these companies are offering long-term client service relationships that are not required to share content on the internet, why would we require them to work with anyone and everyone? If a company finds that a client violates their terms of service—including by publishing hate speech—they should be free to end the relationship.

Yes: 

Without rules that require online services to be content neutral, we are giving up the power to decide who gets a voice online to private companies—companies that are not reliably acting in the public interest or even with their own consistent ground rules. Private whim should never control public speech. 

 

One of the strongest proponents of this argument? The CEO of CloudFlare, Matthew Prince, who made the decision to pull their business from the Daily Stormer. He wrote in order to show the absurdity, "literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn't be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power."

 

This is an issue of free speech online, but also of another constitutional principle: due process. How do you operate in a system where companies can remove your voice at whim? Prince writes, "at its most basic, due process means that you should be able to know the rules a system will follow if you participate in that system."

 

"Due process requires that decisions be public and not arbitrary... Law enforcement, legislators, and courts have the political legitimacy and predictability to make decisions on what content should be restricted. Companies should not."

 

There may have been a time when you didn't need the support of one of several major companies (like CloudFlare) to safely put content online. But online service companies' dominance in the market and the complexity of the internet ecosystem means that is simply no longer true. We need these companies to adhere to a consistent principle of content-neutral service. Prince believes "the right answer is for us to be consistently content neutral"—but companies need government rules to hold them accountable.

Learn more...

  1. The letter from the CEO of CloudFlare, "Why We Terminated the Daily Stormer"
    • "The size and scale of the attacks that can now easily be launched online make it such that if you don't have a network like Cloudflare in front of your content, and you upset anyone, you will be knocked offline... You, like me, may believe that the Daily Stormer's site is vile. You may believe it should be restricted. You may think the authors of the site should be prosecuted. Reasonable people can and do believe all those things. But having the mechanism of content control be vigilante hackers launching DDoS attacks subverts any rational concept of justice.
  2. Brian Feldman's piece, "Who Gets to Decide Who Has a Voice Online?"
    • "In his blog post on the topic, Prince pointed out that the scale of DDoS attacks now is “such that if you don’t have a network like Cloudflare in front of your content, and you upset anyone, you will be knocked offline.” I think my larger point stands, though. Everyone should have the equal and unrestricted ability to make content requests across the vast network of the internet — that’s net neutrality. But requesting is different from hosting, and nobody has an inherent right to hosting space and site stability.