The far right is losing its ability to speak freely online. Should the left defend it?

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Free speech was the lefts rally cry. But the fate of the Daily Stormer, a hate site kicked off the internet, signals the increasing irrelevance of the first amendment

Matthew Prince had the power to kill the white supremacist loathe site the Daily Stormer for years, but he didn’t chose to pull the trigger until 16 August. That’s when the chief executive of website security company Cloudflare” woke up … in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet”, as he told his employees in an internal email. Without Cloudflare’s protection, the Daily Stormer was necessary to retreat to the darknet, where it is inaccessible to the majority of internet users.

Cloudflare was one of many internet companies that cleaned house amid a wave of public outrage following a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Critic charge that technology platforms have enabled a disparate network of racist radicals to try each other out, create monies, and scheme and execute such rallies. But unlike consumer facing companies such as Facebook, YouTube, PayPal and Discord, and even as liberal voices- including the Guardian editorial board– applaud it, Cloudflare won’t defend its actions.

” I am deeply uncomfortable with the decision we stimulated ,” Prince said in an interview.” It doesn’t align with our principles .”

The primary principle at stake- that the US and the internet both remain free speech zones, even for Nazis- has never been more fraught.

” This is a really terrible time to be a free speech proponent ,” said Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.” It’s a’ First they came for the … situation ,” she said, referring to the famous Martin Niemoller lyric about the classes of people targeted by Nazis,” merely in reverse “.

Though these are dark days for American exceptionalism, the US remains distinct in its commitment to freedom of speech. Even as many Americans increasingly favor European-style limitations on abhor speech, the constitution’s first amendment ensures that any such legislative endeavour is likely a non-starter.

But the fate of the Daily Stormer- as vile a publication as it is- may be a alerting to Americans that the first amendment is increasingly irrelevant.

” Historically, the place you went to exert your speech rights was the public square. Now the equivalent is Twitter and YouTube and Facebook ,” said Daphne Keller of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.” In a practical matter, how much you can speak is not in the hands of the constitution but in the hands of these private companies .”

The idea of social media platforms as the” modern public square” was recently endorsed by the US supreme court, which ruled unanimously that barring sex offenders from Facebook and Twitter violated their first amendment rights.

And yet, this digital version of the public square is more closely analogous to” privately owned public spaces”- a very American type of park whose legal particularities became widely known in 2011 when the Occupy Wall Street movement set up camp in one such space.

Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park seemed like the quintessential free speech public square when it became ground zero for a movement built around official records of the general assembly, speaker stacks, and the” people’s mic “. But the public-private nature of the space was built into the movement’s rise and eventual fall: the encampment was only possible in the first place because the privately owned space remained open 24 hours a day, unlike truly public parks, which close at night. And the ability of plaza’s commercial real estate owners to unilaterally change the park’s regulations facilitated the protest group’s eventual eviction.

As opposite as their politics is a possibility, members of the so-called ” alt-right” now find themselves in a similar position to the evicted Occupiers when it comes to the internet platforms where they once prospered: standing outside the gates while power washers sanitize the park for the use of others.

Quick Guide

What is the ‘alt-right’?


Who coined the word ‘alt-right’ ?

The white supremacist Richard Spencer devised the term in 2010. He has described the movement as “identity politics for white Americans and for Europeans around the world”.

What does it stand for ?

The movement subsistences extreme rightwing ideologies, including white patriotism- are equivalent with white supremacism- and antisemitism. It stances itself broadly against egalitarianism, democracy, universalism and multiculturalism.

Some “alt-right” advocates have argued that their hardline, radical postures are not truly meant, but are a route to interrupt conventional and accepted reasoning. Memes, irony and ambiguity are sometimes used in an attempt to wrongfoot critics.

How does the ‘alt-right’ relate to the Trump administration ?

The Trump administration includes figures who are associated with the “alt-right”, including the former Breitbart News executive chairwoman Steve Bannon , now the White House chief strategist. Many of Trump’s policy stances have won favour with the movement.

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American technology companies that were once imbued with the ethos of Twitter’s famous sobriquet-” the free speech wing of the free speech party”- have changed the rules, or at the least decided to start selectively enforcing rules that are technologically unfeasible to apply across the board.

This crackdown means that our public square might as well be in Brussels. Pressure from the European Union moved Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft in 2016 to adopt a hate speech “code of conduct” that is much more stringent than what US law would require, Keller said. And even without the influence of the EU, the industry’s reliance on advertisers produces its own incentives toward censoriousness.


Tech companies such as Twitter, once a free speech free-for-all, has already begun changing the rules about who can say what. Photograph: Bloomberg/ Bloomberg via Getty Images

” If “youre thinking about” the 10 companies that have the infrastructure to truly survive on the crazy dangerous internet that is out there, a huge percentage of them are advertising-driven companies ,” said Prince.” They will by their very nature have a much more filtered, cleaned up version of the internet because that is where their economic incentives are .”

The overwhelming dominance of cyberspace by those handfuls of companies means that the battle over speech that is protected by the first amendment, rather than corporate words of service, will be relegated to the remaining, truly public spaces in the real world, such as the public university campuses that have become the forum of choice for rightwing provocateurs like internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos and white nationalist Richard Spencer.

At certain points in US history, an embrace of free speech was a liberal’s rhetorical trump card. But amid the political turbulence of 2017, members of the #resistance have cheered the internet crackdown on the far-right and called for the exclusion of rightwing extremists to assemble in public spaces, from Boston to San Francisco. Meanwhile, supporters of a chairperson who routinely rails against the free press have enthusiastically donned the mantle of first amendment freedom fighters.

” We are the new free speech motion ,” declared the Berkeley College Republican this spring, as they fought for the right to host Yiannopoulos on campus.” The Free Speech Tech revolution has begun ,” announced social media startup Gab, which stances itself as a free-speech alternative to Twitter and Facebook but is largely inhabited by rightwing exiles of the major social networks.

Gab CEO Andrew Torba declined to be interviewed by the Guardian, which he called ” very fake news “.

If the left does abandon its free speech principles, it may come to sadnes it.

” I’m really surprised to assure liberals talk about what speech needs to be taken down, and not take that dialogue a step further and talking here who is actually doing the censoring ,” York said, questioning whether we should trust either the governmental forces or” unelected white Silicon Valley dudes” to make such decisions.

Or as Keller says:” We should not expect the new speech gatekeepers to be benign eternally, or to enforce rules that we agree with eternally .”

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