Silicon Valley Fights Back Against Extremism Online

Aug 17, 2017
Originally published on August 17, 2017 6:06 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Companies in Silicon Valley have been blocking white supremacists, stopping their ability to raise money online, removing them from Internet search engines and preventing websites from registering. The goal is to make it harder for hate groups to reach their audience. Here to talk about this and what it tells us about free speech and corporate power is NPR's Aarti Shahani. Hello.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Hi.

MCEVERS: So first of all, which companies are doing this, and what are they doing?

SHAHANI: Well, a bunch of Silicon Valley companies are blocking hate groups in one way or another, OK? There's a site called The Daily Stormer. It's basically this horrific neo-Nazi blog that decided to write an article making fun of, attacking the woman who was killed in Charlottesville by the man who plowed his car into protesters. Well, Facebook decided to use software to automatically zap any link to that offensive article unless the person who posted it put a caption that was critical of it, OK? Facebook and Twitter have also both deactivated the accounts of several white nationalists.

Beyond the social networks, you know, to exist on the worldwide web, You have to register your domain. So thedailystormer.com was using this well-known registrar called GoDaddy. GoDaddy kicked them off, so they then went to Google. And then Google kicked them off, too. And besides that, Spotify is removing so-called white power music.

MCEVERS: And is all this since the racial violence in Charlottesville, or has it been going on longer?

SHAHANI: No. I mean Charlottesville's the turning point, exactly.

MCEVERS: Yeah, OK. So how significantly are groups like The Daily Stormer being harmed? I mean can they still raise money?

SHAHANI: Well, on the money side, PayPal is barring some users who were raising money for the white supremacist rally. Apple is suspending Apple Pay support if you try to buy far right merchandise like, say, swastika T-shirts. And so what you're basically seeing is a lot of Internet companies - giant ones and smaller ones - stepping up after Charlottesville to say, we're not going to facilitate the communication or the fundraising of these groups.

MCEVERS: And you've been in touch with a tech company that says it's never censored any users before this week. Tell us about their decision.

SHAHANI: Yeah. This is actually fascinating. There's the CEO of this one tech company called Cloudflare, and he decided to go ahead and block or stop providing security service to that site I mentioned, The Daily Storm (ph). And he did it in two moves. The first was to stop the service. So the headline around it is basically, hey, another tech company's taking a stand against hate.

But then shortly thereafter, he wrote a blog post about why he did what he did, and he said it was actually unsettling. He described it as such because no court ordered it. It was his choice. You know, as a tech CEO, he can wake up one morning and just decide to flip the switch on someone, and it could be because he's having a bad day for something arbitrary, you know, which isn't great for democracy.

MCEVERS: Right.

SHAHANI: So what's interesting about what he did - the CEO of Cloudflare - is admitting to something that many tech CEOs don't want to admit, which is, you know, they've got tremendous power over speech and content.

MCEVERS: Right. And so I wonder. I mean has there been backlash to these decisions - not that, you know, masses of people are coming out and supporting white supremacists but saying this is a little - this makes me nervous that you guys can have this much power to do this kind of thing?

SHAHANI: Yeah, well, I mean what's interesting is that first of all, the white supremacist sites that have been targeted - some of those leaders have spoken to me and said that this is not fair, and these companies are overstepping. And you know, ironically, (laughter) the same entities that are calling for the overthrow of government or the radical sort of reformation of it want them to step in and regulate. And that's not so dissimilar from what some progressives have been saying as well about these companies.

I mean this is not at all the first time that Google and Facebook and others have stepped in to delist content, you know? Facebook has had campaigns against radical Islam and blocked those kinds of sites, and people have often questioned, well, are they using their corporate power legitimately?

MCEVERS: OK. That's NPR's Aarti Shahani. Thank you so much.

SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.