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Tech companies shut down white nationalist sites

August 19, 2017 at 5:06 PM EDT
Events in Charlottesville last week prompted the tech community to take steps against hate speech. Companies like Google have stopped hosting white nationalist websites, and Facebook and Twitter have shut down known white nationalists’ accounts. Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation warns that the tactics used to silence neo-Nazis online could be used against others in the future.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: The events in Charlottesville also prompted a response from the tech community that quickly took steps against hate speech. Companies like Google, Go Daddy and Cloudfare have decided to stop hosting or supporting white supremacists’ Websites. PayPal and Apple Pay have decided to stop allowing known hate organizations from using their payment platforms to raise funds.

Fundraising sites like Patreon and GoFundMe have kicked certain users off their system. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter have begun shutting down known white supremacists’ accounts. Airbnb and Uber have kicked white supremacists off their service, and even Spotify began taking down music from hate rock bands.

Our next guest says this is a slippery slope development. She’s Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She joins us now from San Francisco.

Cindy, for those people who aren’t familiar with what EFF does, a nutshell summary.

CINDY COHN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ELECTRONIC FRONTIER FOUNDATION: Well, we work to make sure that when you go online, your rights go with you. So, we spend lot of time thinking about free speech and privacy, and how to make sure that the Internet is the place that we all want to be.

SREENIVASAN: Tell us of the constitutional protections in place for free speech and how they translate online. A lot of these public companies and private companies on the Internet are going to say, hey, we’re well within our rights. We are the ones that host these communities, and we want to figure out what kind of speech works.

COHN: They’re absolutely within their rights to kick off these folks. There’s no legal problem here. There’s no First Amendment problem here because they’re private companies. So, they’re within their rights.

You know, what we’re worried about is that this — this tactic is not a new tactic. And we think it’s a very dangerous one. We have spent last 10 years trying to help all sorts of Websites and speakers online respond to threats being issued against their service providers to try to silence them. And while, you know, everyone’s just awakening to this now because of the horrific, you know, words on these Websites, you know, the vast majority of people who we have tried to help protect are people who I suspect at least some of your audience will be far more sympathetic to.

SREENIVASAN: Are you concerned that different groups can fall under the same category? Right now, we’re going after the Nazis. We may go after someone else six months from now or two years from now.

COHN: That’s exactly right. In fact, there is a pretty significant effort to try to get people to call the Black Lives Matter movement a terrorist movement and stop their hosting. In the past, we’ve helped people who have done parody sites. We have seen big companies like De Beers or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce try to go after parody or criticism Websites by getting their hosts and their domain name hosts not to host them anymore, to chase this speech off of the Internet.

So, you know, I have no love lost for the Daily Stormer and the neo Nazis. But if we endorse this tactic here, it’s going to be much harder for me and other people the next time, when it turns around and it goes against a cause that we love, to say, no, no, no. You know, you should just be a neutral content host.

SREENIVASAN: It seems that these tech companies are actually creating a set of laws that cross borders. I mean, if Facebook has 2 billion users on the planet, this is not just the United Nations sort of Geneva Conventions that we’re living by. They’re figuring out what speech works in one country, what’s controversial in another.

COHN: That’s correct, and they get it wrong all the time. And this is something that we know from where we sit because we try to help them.

Let me give you a very recent example. YouTube was trying recently to use artificial intelligence to get rid of what they called extremist content on YouTube. And you know what they ended up taking down? A bunch of the people who are collecting war crimes evidence.

It’s not that easy to just say, oh, well, that’s bad speech, we don’t want it; this is good speech, we do. There are easy cases, but there’s far more hard cases. And what we see is, this ends up meaning that powerful people get to censor and take speech down and not powerful people don’t.

SREENIVASAN: All right. Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, joining us via Skype from San Francisco today, thanks so much.

COHN: Thank you.

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