Although many clamor for censorship in the face of extremism online, do we really want to get involved in such a slippery slope? For example, who decides what to censor and how are those people chosen?
We can all agree that extremism is one of the biggest problems of our age. With mass shootings becoming a regular feature of American life, lawmakers are under pressure to do something.
One easy way to get results fast is to censor extremist content. Take the propaganda down, the thinking goes, and terrorists and other extremists will no longer be able to spread their ideas.
But does that really work?
If terrorists are using the internet to spread their ideology, many feel it must be stopped immediately. Following the El Paso and Dayton Ohio shootings, the message board 8chan went down.
The website had been used by the El Paso shooter to post a hate-filled manifesto in which he explained his motives for carrying out the attack. This was the third mass shooting 8chan was connected with this year.
The site went down after Cloudflare, which protects websites from Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, pulled its services. DDoS attacks take a site offline by flooding the server with too much traffic to handle.
Without the protection offered by a service like Cloudflare, a site can be taken down in minutes. Other providers attempted to step in to work with 8chan to offer DDoS protection.
BitMitigate, a subsidiary of web hosting company Epik agreed to work with 8chan. However that fell through once another company, Voxility, denied hardware to Epik, thus preventing BitMitigate from being able to offer that service.
Voxility was transparent that this was a political move. The company tweeted: “We are all in the same team here! Thank you for the support and for the notes. The 3rd party hoster is blocked completely.”
On the face of it this looks like a coordinated success by companies to come together in the face of hate and take down an odious website which was a national security threat.
But is it really?
Who Decides and Based on What?
“Freedom of speech and expression are fundamental rights in a free society,” a spokesperson for Epik, which tried to keep 8chan online, told CNBC. “We enter into a slippery slope when we start to limit speech that makes us uncomfortable.
“The censorship we’ve seen across major social media platforms as of late has created a vacuum. Our services fill the ever growing need for a neutral service provider that will not arbitrarily terminate accounts based on social or political pressure.”
It is easy to justify taking down this or that website as specific purveyors of extremism. But if private companies are allowed to deny service to anyone they disapprove of, you open up a whole other can of worms.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Christian Baker Jack Philips who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple on religious grounds.
How much power to give to businesses to let their personal beliefs impact their businesses is a huge question. When it comes to extremism, there is a clear need to tackle white supremacist, Islamist and other extremist ideologies effectively.
Yet, censorship allows for politically-aligned organizations to position themselves as the arbiters of who should and should not be allowed to speak.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), for example, publishes a hate groups blacklist on its website. In 2018 the SPLC was forced to pay out a $3.375 million defamation claim to counter-extremist activist Maajid Nawaz, for including him on their list of Anti-Muslim Extremists.
Nawaz heads the counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation and is himself a Muslim. He routinely speaks up for the rights of Muslims to practice their faith freely and opposes Far-Right extremists.
Yet despite such outrageously wrong calls, Facebook, Amazon, Google and Twitter have all worked with the SPLC, seeking its advice on who to ban and who to let speak.
Unless the government is very careful, once the door to censorship is opened, it will be used to silence political opposition as well as used in all sorts of ways that violate the First Amendment.
For example, many Left-wing organizations will attempt to tar anyone on the Right as a far-Right hate group, and shut down all conservative discourse through censorship.
Opposing hate speech and extremism is one thing. Allowing large tech firms aligned with Left-wing groups to silence all dissent is something else entirely.