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Hate speech tests tech's core principles

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Several major tech firms are reevaluating their core value of openness as they clamp down on white supremacist rhetoric on their platforms. After protests turned violent in Charlottesville, companies are taking a harder line against hateful content than they have in the past.

Why it matters: The tech industry's vision has been to create open, neutral platforms that allow all viewpoints. Every time it filters content or restricts users' access, it has to balance that goal with concerns about hate speech that could lead to violence. This week's events have caused many companies to recalibrate that balance. Many are still grappling with where to draw the line between free speech and dangerous extremism.

Not all companies took action right away. The growing outcry over the Charlottesville violence led to several major platforms taking a stand in the days following. Some on the left argue that Facebook, for example, didn't act quickly enough.

Timeline:

  • Sunday: GoDaddy dropped white supremacist site The Daily Stormer from its domain registration system.
  • Monday: The Daily Stormer registered its domain with Google, which quickly severed the relationship. Recode reported that Facebook had removed a white nationalist group on the site. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said that the company "will continue to stand for acceptance and we will continue to do all we can to enforce our community commitment;" the company had already banned users who were planning on attending the Charlottesville event.
  • Tuesday: PayPal said it would "as we consistently have in the past – limit or end customer relationships and prohibit the use of our services by those that meet the thresholds of violating" its acceptable use policy. It has reportedly stopped working with some white nationalist websites.
  • Wednesday: Facebook announced the removal of a white nationalist's account five days after the attacks. Cloudflare ended its relationship with The Daily Stormer while Twitter appeared to suspend its accounts. Spotify removed music by white supremacist bands. Apple Pay stopped letting certain white supremacist sites sell items using its product. Squarespace removed some sites from its service in "light of recent events."

The dilemma: Where do companies draw the line? Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince was candid about this in an internal email published by Gizmodo on Wednesday evening:

"It's important that what we did today not set a precedent. The right answer is for us to be consistently content neutral. But we need to have a conversation about who and how the content online is controlled. We couldn't have that conversation while the Daily Stormer site was using us. Now, hopefully, we can."

In a Facebook post Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg, too, made clear the company has to be careful in how it deals with hate speech: "Debate is part of a healthy society," he said. "But when someone tries to silence others or attacks them based on who they are or what they believe, that hurts us all and is unacceptable."

Our thought bubble: Tech companies have always been wary of getting too involved in the process of vetting the content they host. The events since Sunday show the limits of that thinking as their platforms become more pervasive.