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Internet services face new pressure to crack down on extremist sites

Companies that quietly support the infrastructure of the internet are under new political pressure. Tony Dejak/AP

The services that help form an unofficial backbone for the internet are facing pressure to stop working with certain sites tied to extremism — a sign of the growing tension between the demands to crack down on content linked to violence and the internet's tradition of openness.

The Counter Extremism Project, a non-profit that focuses in part on disrupting extremist recruitment online, says in letters to Cloudflare, WordPress parent Automattic and GoDaddy that the companies should stop providing services to sites associated with terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Axios got an early look at the letters, which were sent this week.

Why it matters: These are three members of a club of companies that can, effectively, decide whether someone gets to host a website.

Cloudflare, for example, protects websites from cyberattacks and GoDaddy provides them with domain name registration. All three also decided to stop providing services to websites associated with white supremacist groups earlier this summer — which helped to trigger the Friday letters.

In a letter to Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince, Mark Wallace, CEO of the Counter Extremism Project, cited Prince's email in which he said that they had stopped working with the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer because the people behind the site "are a**holes and I'd had enough."

Key quote: "Surely you would agree that the people behind internationally-sanctioned terrorist organizations such as ISIS are also 'a**holes,' and that the content on websites operated on their behalf are at least as 'vile,'" said Wallace, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Yes, but: These issues have forced tech to re-evaluate its hardline commitment to openness. Some have wondered if that's happening too fast, and in hoc way.

  • "All fair-minded people must stand against the hateful violence and aggression that seems to be growing across our country," wrote the liberal Electronic Frontier Foundation in August. "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."
  • Wallace said in a letter to GoDaddy that the organization hopes that cutting off the Daily Stormer "is a first step that will lead to the adoption of policies that put an end to ad-hoc and reactionary removal of content and services, clearly define what material and partners are acceptable to GoDaddy, and allow for the quick removal of objectionable extremist content in a manner that is reasonable, consistent, transparent, and fair."

Be smart: This will keep coming up for the companies that form the silent infrastructure for the Internet, at least until there's some sort of consensus on how to address issues like this.

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