Tech companies, governments cracking down on free speech online


It’s no surprise that tech companies such as Google and GoDaddy came under pressure to drop clients such as the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer following extremist violence in Charlottesville earlier this month. But given the ongoing controversies over internet censorship not only in the United States but around the world, it is also understandable that they’ve subsequently received criticism for their decisions.

“Even for free speech advocates, this situation is deeply fraught with emotional, logistical, and legal twists and turns,” leading online rights activists at the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in a blog post. “All fair-minded people must stand against the hateful violence and aggression that seems to be growing across our country. But we must also recognize that on the Internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with. Those on the left face calls to characterize the Black Lives Matter movement as a hate group. In the Civil Rights Era cases that formed the basis of today’s protections of freedom of speech, the NAACP’s voice was the one attacked.”

The EFF quoted the CEO of Cloudfare, a web security services firm that also dropped the Daily Stormer — who said that he “woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet” — and wrote that they agreed with him that “no one should have that power.”

In justifying its position, the EFF noted that the tech companies in question are private and not legally obligated by the First Amendment, as a governmental entity would be, to provide anyone a platform.

“We at EFF defend the right of anyone to choose what speech they provide online; platforms have a First Amendment right to decide what speech does and does not appear on their platforms. That’s what laws like [Communications and Decency Act] 230 in the United States enable and protect,” they wrote.

“But we strongly believe that what GoDaddy, Google, and Cloudflare did here was dangerous. That’s because, even when the facts are the most vile, we must remain vigilant when platforms exercise these rights. Because Internet intermediaries, especially those with few competitors, control so much online speech, the consequences of their decisions have far-reaching impacts on speech around the world.”

Some in the press have come to the companies’ defense, describing their actions, for instance, as “preferable to solutions that involve the government, because once the government is involved, resolving the conflict becomes a matter of using force, not influence and social pressure.” Other critics at publications ranging from Slate to the Financial Times, however, have decried “big tech” for what is increasingly seen as overreach.

Navneet Alang of The Week writes that these latest moves take us a step “deeper into the murky waters of having corporations policing speech — and with it, it seems likely we will have to confront the specter of regulating the internet.”

Quoting, again, Cloudfare CEO Matthew Prince’s statement that no one should have the power that he himself had to arbitrarily kick someone off the internet, the Times‘ Rana Foroohar notes that other powerful tech companies also retain that power:

Yet they also continue to benefit, in the US at least, from laws that treat them as “special” and allow them to get around all sorts of legal issues that companies in every other kind of business have to grapple with. This amounts to billions of dollars in corporate subsidies to the world’s most powerful industry.

The golden goose is a little-known bit of federal telecommunications law. Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act (CDA) was crafted in 1996 to allow tech firms exemption from liability for nearly all kinds of illegal content or actions perpetrated by their users (there are a few small carveouts for things like copyright violations and rare federal criminal prosecutions). In recent years, the tech industry has thrown a tremendous amount of money and effort into ensuring that it maintains section 230 as a “get out of jail free” card.

But this law is being challenged by powerful politicians. On August 1, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Rob Portman, introduced legislation that would create a carve-out in section 230 for tech firms that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking. The impetus for this was the horror of, a firm that actively created a platform for online sex trafficking for its own profit.

It is a piece of legislation that everyone, it seems, can get behind — except the largest tech companies and their industry lobbying groups. They are concerned that it would open a Pandora’s box of legal issues for them. These groups had the rough copy of the bill for months before its introduction, yet refused to offer edits during its crafting.

But it’s not exactly “everyone” besides big tech that can get behind the bill. A spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) — a longtime aggressive advocate for internet-freedom-related issues such as greater transparency around government mass surveillance — for example, reportedly called the proposed legislation “a misguided attempt that would destroy the foundations of the internet instead of doing the hard work of confronting the criminals who are exploiting the most vulnerable members of our society.” The EFF’s Elliot Harmon, likewise, says the bill “would spell disaster for speech and innovation.”

Yet Politico nonetheless reports that the tech companies’ recent “crackdown on racism could complicate one of its biggest fights in Congress, where Silicon Valley is lobbying hard against” the bill.

Whether or not the U.S. government soon steps in to take on the role of a more heavy-handed internet censor — and takes that role away from “big tech” — moves by various governments around the world since Charlottesville seem to indicate a growing intolerance of online speech that is, for whatever reason, inconvenient.

Following last week’s rape conviction of a “cult leader” in India with tens of millions of followers, for example, to “prevent any disturbance of peace and public order,” local government officials in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana reportedly cut off internet access to more than 50 million people for five days.

While the Chinese government has long had a poor record when it comes to internet freedom, meanwhile, the country’s “crackdown on Internet freedom is getting even more intense” Catherine Shu reports for TechCrunch. Last week China announced new regulations reiterating a ban on anonymous posts online, requiring Internet companies and service providers to verify users’ identities, and published a list of types of content banned from online publication “so broad that it can cover almost anything.”

Other countries looking to increase the scope of social media censorship include Venezuela, where “a so-called anti-hate law” is reportedly under consideration, and the United Kingdom, where the Crown Prosecution Service has recently made a commitment “to treat online hate crimes as seriously as those committed face to face.”

For anyone cheering the recent moves by GoDaddy, Google and Cloudfare, however, the most troubling news may come from Germany, where far-right “hate speech” has long been banned. But now, in a first, Germany has shut down a left-wing website allegedly used to organize violence at protests of this summer’s G-20 meeting in Hamburg, which the German Interior Ministry reportedly described as the “most influential online platform for vicious left-wing extremists in Germany.”

It’s not at all clear that these worrying moves by various governments have anything to do with Charlottesville. But what is clear in the wake of tech companies’ responses to that incident is that the debate over freedom of speech on the internet, not only in the U.S. but around the world, is only going to intensify, even as the issues involved remain complex. While neo-Nazis and other extremists may have nothing worthwhile to say, as so many have recently pointed out, limiting freedom of speech is a tricky business, and can easily become a slippery slope.



Clarification, Aug. 30, 2018: While the recent shutdown of a left-wing website in Germany may be a first of sorts for online censorship, as Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept points out, hate speech laws in Europe and elsewhere have long been used to questionably justify suppression of a wide range of speech.

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