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.