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Hiawatha Bray | Tech :Lab

Shutting up the alt-right

A memorial for Heather Heyer at the scene where she was killed when a man drove into a crowd during a protest against a rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va.
Edu Bayer/The New York Times
A memorial for Heather Heyer at the scene where she was killed when a man drove into a crowd during a protest against a rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va.

Sometimes even a free speech fanatic like me is forced to admit that the correct answer is “shut up.” That’s why I’m happy that Internet companies GoDaddy and Google have broken their ties to one of the nastiest sites on the Internet.

The racist, pro-Nazi website The Daily Stormer reveled in the savage violence of last weekend’s confrontations in Charlottesville, Va., and celebrated the murder of an anti-Nazi protestor. Now the site has gone underground after GoDaddy and Google kicked them off their web-hosting networks. On Wednesday, a Twitter account associated with the group was also suspended.

It might sound like an about-face for me, the guy who teed off on Google just last week for firing employee James Damore because he wrote a memo his colleagues didn’t like. Where’s my reverence for freedom of expression?

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It’s right here, strong as ever. I’m pretty nearly an absolutist about such things. I favor the free expression of pretty much all opinions, even bigoted and hateful ones. But if it’s your view that your opponents ought to be killed, it’s time to shut you up.

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This is a long way from James Damore’s memo, which suggested that biological differences between men and women may explain Google’s diversity problem. Controversial? Immensely. Hateful? Not even a little bit.

Even so, Google had a right to fire him for writing it. I just think it was a dumb and perhaps dangerous thing to do, because it called into question Google’s regard for the open exchange of ideas. Remember that Google has a near-stranglehold on our access to Internet information. If such a company would fire a man merely for writing a controversial memo, what’s to stop it from shielding all of us from “bad ideas”? For our own good, of course.

The Daily Stormer situation is quite different, on multiple levels. First, neither Google nor GoDaddy have the power to drive this site from the Internet altogether. There are plenty of other domain hosting services where the Stormer can peddle its poisons.

The Nazis moved to the “dark Web,” the digital underground popular with privacy buffs and human rights advocates, drug dealers and pornographers. It was accessible only through a dark Web browser called Tor. It briefly resurfaced Wednesday with a Russian Internet domain before going dark once again. Perhaps by now it’s slithered into the light again.

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I’m only partly appalled by efforts to resurrect the site. In a sane universe, the Stormer wouldn’t exist at all. But I don’t want any one company to have enough power to make that happen.

Besides, Twitter, GoDaddy, and Google were motivated by far more than hurt feelings. Last Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville resulted in dozens of injuries and one death. And the Daily Stormer cheered on the right-wing thugs who gathered in the city to protest the removal of a public monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and hurled hateful insults about Heather Heyer, the woman killed in the Charlottesville attack, including the vile statement that she “got what she deserved.”

“In our determination, especially given the tragic events in Charlottesville, Dailystormer.com crossed the line and encouraged and promoted violence,” GoDaddy said. A Google spokesman told me the same thing by phone.

Under a 1969 Supreme Court ruling, the government can crack down on menacing speech only when it poses a specific, imminent threat — a call to burn down a local church or synagogue, for instance — and not when it is merely inflammatory. But Twitter, Google, and GoDaddy aren’t bound by such concerns. As private companies, they’re free to base their decisions on basic decency, however they define it.

The Google spokesman said this decision applied only to the Stormer. I’m not as inclined to trust Google as I used to be. Still, the company insists this isn’t the start of a fishing expedition to cull controversial Internet sites. Links to the Daily Stormer still turn up in Google searches. So despite my paranoia over the Damore case, Google doesn’t seem to be tampering with the free flow of ideas, even bad ones.

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If incitements to violence are reason enough to oust a website, why is Donald Trump still on Twitter? In a speech, Trump recently urged police to rough up criminal suspects, which is both brutal and illegal. Suppose he’d tweeted that message instead? It’s hard to believe Twitter would unplug the world’s most powerful man, but if enough users demand enforcement of the Daily Stormer standard, who knows?

Meanwhile, some right-of-center techies foresee a relentless assault on their online liberties. “We want the American people to know that this is truly, truly, the end of democracy,” said Utsav Sanduja, spokesman for Gab, a Twitter-like social network best known as a hangout for Trump supporters and the alt-right.

Gab was hit hard Tuesday by a denial-of-service attack, and Sanduja said he and other members of the so-called Alt-Tech Alliance are considering building their own Internet hosting facilities.

In principle, I like the idea of an alternative to the Googles and GoDaddys of the world, though I was hoping for something with fewer swastikas. But that’s the Internet for you, where it’s nearly impossible to shut people up.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab..