Last week, multiple major Internet corporations essentially cooperated to kick a hate site, The Daily Stormer, off the Internet. Cloudflare, GoDaddy, Google, and various other companies withdrew their services, and now one of the Internet’s most odious sites lives mainly on the “dark web,” largely inaccessible to the casual user.
This was an ominous development for free speech — and not because there is anything at all valuable about The Daily Stormer’s message. It’s an evil site. Its message is vile. Instead, The Daily Stormer’s demise is a reminder that a few major corporations now have far more power than the government to regulate and restrict free speech, and they’re hardly neutral or unbiased actors. They have a point of view, and they’re under immense pressure to use that point of view to influence public debate.
For example, just this week ProPublica, a respected journalism outlet, decided to study “how leading tech companies monetize hate.” The article begins by highlighting not the Klan or a white-supremacist militia but instead Jihadwatch.org. And how did it choose Jihad Watch? It relied on the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that is notorious for supplementing its lists of white-supremacist hate groups with its own ideological enemies list, one that a university radical would love.
It singles out mainstream Christian organizations like the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defending Freedom as hate groups because they defend and support orthodox Christian beliefs on marriage, sexuality, and gender identity. It challenges Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch because he argues that “traditional Islam itself is not moderate or peaceful.” That’s a highly debatable proposition (indeed, there are Muslims who agree with Spencer), but is it akin to white supremacy? After all, enormous numbers of people in the Muslim world believe in the death penalty for, among other things, blasphemy or apostasy. Those are mainstream Muslim views. Are those views “moderate?” Are those views “peaceful?”
In fact, the SPLC’s language about the FRC is so inflammatory and one-sided that in 2012 it inspired a man named Floyd Lee Corkins to attempt to massacre as many FRC employees as he could and stuff Chick-fil-A sandwiches in their dead mouths. In 2016, the SPLC inspired a violent attack on Charles Murray when he tried to speak at Middlebury College. A number of the protesters reported that they hadn’t read Murray’s work. They relied entirely on the SPLC’s inaccurate summary of his views.
No one weeps for The Daily Stormer, but censors often start with the easy targets.
None of this is happening in a free-speech vacuum. In some progressive enclaves even the most ordinary and mainstream of assertions cause meltdowns. The examples are too numerous to mention, but who can forget the physical threats on Evergreen State College professor Bret Weinstein when he objected to a plan to exclude white students and professors from campus for a day? Who can forget the incredible, overheated response at Yale University to the suggestion that adult students should be free to choose their own Halloween costumes? And let’s remember that it was just days ago that Google — a company that claims to value free expression — summarily fired an employee for making good-faith arguments about sex differences that are “well-supported by large volumes of research across species, cultures, and history.”
When Cloudflare terminated its relationship with The Daily Stormer, its CEO sounded a word of warning. In an e-mail to company employees, he said, “Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.” In fact, he explicitly hoped that his actions would “not set a precedent.” But he has set a precedent. So has Google. So has GoDaddy. It’s a precedent that activists will cite time and again — it’s a precedent that ProPublica just cited — to try to force the most powerful communications companies in the world to use their immense reach to restrict debate on the most consequential issues in public life.
Americans by default and without any meaningful choice are putting their trust in a collection of companies that are largely ideological monocultures disproportionately influenced by the social-justice Left. No one weeps for The Daily Stormer, but censors often start with the easy targets, and even a cynic like me was surprised at how quickly ProPublica started probing tech companies’ relationships with far more mainstream organizations. The move from The Daily Stormer to the Family Research Council isn’t a slippery slope, it’s a plunge off a cliff of reason and rationality, yet it’s a plunge that all too many Americans are willing to take. They see no distinction between orthodox Christians and the Klan, and they’ll pressure corporations to see the world the same way.
There are no easy answers to our cultural drift away from free speech, but the first line of defense is persuasion. There are people of goodwill at companies such as Google, Cloudflare, and GoDaddy — people who understand the high cost of censorship and the dangers of ideological uniformity. They understand that the proper cure for bad speech is better speech. Indeed, they remain powerful enough that our online culture is still vibrant and largely free. They cannot and must not fall for the activism and hectoring of ideological opportunists.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.