Options for neo-Nazis on the internet are starting to shrink

Hate groups have overstayed their internet welcome.

If you're an American who's ever wondered what it would be like to have had the internet and today's technology during the time of Nazi ascension in Germany, take a look around. You're soaking in it.

While a whole lot of us have been aware of this since at least last year's election, it's only now starting to sink in for companies who control the internet. Bitterly, only after the literal killing of people in the streets by white supremacists. Who, until this week, enjoyed using online services for their organizing, sharing, harassing, business needs and getting hateful shit done.

It wasn't the post-election spike in hate crimes that turned the tide. It wasn't the 1,000+ hate incidents against minorities within the first month after the election, or the 86% rise in anti-Semitic hate incidents within the last quarter -- which the Southern Poverty Law Center attributes to Trump's emboldening of hate groups.

Nor was it the murders of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown or other men of color whose lives were denigrated and deaths have been mocked and celebrated in posts on sites (and social-media groups) such as Daily Stormer since at least 2014.

The event to finally move the needle for internet companies doing business with hate groups was the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. More specifically, the tipping point came when neo-Nazi-Republican website/group Daily Stormer ran an attention-grabbing post denigrating the victim.

Compared to the black men listed above, Daily Stormer went light on Heyer, but it was no less repulsive. This makes sense for them because she's white; Daily Stormer didn't call her mother a "stupid ape" (Michael Brown, 2014), or say a hero "put down [a] rabid dog" (Tamir Rice, 2017) nor could they call it a "chimpout" (Freddie Gray, 2016).

Ms. Heyer's awful turn in Daily Stormer's spotlight just happened to be the thing notoriously skeezy web host GoDaddy found to be one bridge too far. As the week unfolded, the same would be evident for Google, YouTube, Twitter, Sendgrid, Zoho, Cloudflare, PayPal, Apple Pay, Discord, Reddit, Spotify and Facebook.

It began Monday when GoDaddy booted the site from its hosting service, citing a terms violation.

The rest was a domino effect of companies finally sorta-admitting they're part of a serious problem. And, entertainingly, hackers making life hell for the online presence of neo-Nazi Republicans. Which feels good, and is fun to laugh at.

Yet the decision of web providers yanking services and ejecting Nazi scumbags is apparently a controversial and unprecedented issue. It would appear that until now, like Trump, internet companies like Facebook and Cloudflare have not shared the instinctive moral revulsion most Americans, Europeans and British feel toward white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Their reaction is not unlike Sheriff Bell in No Country For Old Men, whose character hallmark is first-time astonishment that such vileness could exist in a person. While the rest of us have been pursued in a slow-motion nightmare from these people in large part thanks to their internet services all along.

First, let's roll back to this week's plot developments. After getting GoDaddy's boot, Daily Stormer unsuccessfully tried to re-host at Google, which ejected the site after just two hours. Google then terminated the site's YouTube channel. According to the EFF, "Google also placed the domain on "client hold," which means that Daily Stormer's owner cannot activate, use or move the domain to another service." They added that "it's unclear whether this is for a limited amount of time or whether Google has decided to effectively take ownership of the domain permanently."

Chat and VOIP app Discord joined the eviction party next, widening the net and shutting down several neo-Nazi servers and accounts. Then email-newsletter service Sendgrid and SaaS suite provider Zoho, who confirmed to press it had terminated services to Daily Stormer. Surprisingly, Reddit was next at bat. The company told press it was actively banning subreddits linked to far-right extremists, though only confirmed it had banned r/Physical_Removal, which openly advocated violence.

To everyone's shock, Facebook actually did something that may barely affect its lucrative active daily user numbers: It banned eight hate-group pages (including one called Genuine Donald Trump).

According to CNET, Facebook also "removed Charlottesville's Unite the Right event page over the weekend, and is currently removing all links to an article at The Daily Stormer that attacked Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer, unless they explicitly condemn the source material." One individual had his profiles removed by both Facebook and Instagram, former IT guy and prominent white nationalist Christopher Cantwell, who has been labeled an extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It should be noted that press has simultaneously noted that hate groups and white-supremacist memes "thrive, even in wide open, public communities" on Facebook. Don't worry, it's still a clean, well-lit place for fascism: Facebook still defends Holocaust denial as free speech as its policy, despite the fact that it is illegal in 16 countries because it is linked to violence against Jews.

That was a hell of a Tuesday. By Wednesday, Spotify finally moved to remove a slew of white-supremacist artists that were flagged three years ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center as racist "hate bands." An article on Digital Music News from Monday called "I Just Found 27 White Supremacist Hate bands on Spotify" apparently prompted the removals.

Developer platform Twilio also announced it was adding "an explicit prohibition of hate speech" into its Acceptable Use Policy. Apple and PayPal started disabling payment support from some, but not all "websites selling white nationalist and Nazi apparel." PayPal got explicit about it. Squarespace said it would be dropping white-supremacist sites from its hosting service but declined to say which ones.

Wednesday also saw the final support beam, Daily Stormer's staunch DDoS protector Cloudflare throwing in the towel. The service announced it would no longer do business with the site because Daily Stormer had bragged that Cloudflare supported its mission. That made Cloudflare's CEO Matthew Prince change his mind about hosting them.

Prince's statement said, "Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion. The tipping point for us making this decision was that the team behind Daily Stormer made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology."

Groups who want to spew vileness and incite violence but want to keep their Cloudflare account, take note: Loose lips sink ships, and all that.

Or maybe just don't be a Nazi

By the time Cloudflare dumped them, Daily Stormer had moved to a .onion address then a .ru (Russian top-level domain) URL, while also trying to move its Facebook following to Russian Facebook clone VK. The Verge noted that at the time of publishing the beleaguered Nazi-Republican site's VK page had "only 88 followers." Thursday saw even the .ru domain suspended when the Russian government's media regulator said it needed to review the site's "extremist content."

From the moment images of Charlottesville hit Twitter, Anonymous and associates activated faster than the internet's notoriously racist and diversity-challenged powerhouse corporate darlings. It's no surprise; this wing of hacktivism hates racists with a historic passion and loves to act on it.

Anonymous was knocking various neo-Nazi and KKK sites offline Sunday night and continues as we publish this column; the #OpDomesticTerrorism hashtag on Twitter charts the activities. They pwned single and multiple fascist and Nazi sites, the Daily Stormer BBS, and other bits and pieces, as well as directing anger at the city of Charlottesville. This carnage isn't letting up anytime soon.

The internet's rejection and ejection of neo-Nazi and white supremacy sites this week has tensions high about issues of speech, on top of tensions being at a breaking point with fascist viewpoints, their enticements to violence, and their backing in the White House.

The problem is that the same companies we're cheering at to take a bite out of Nazi privilege and access are the same companies whose takedown and censorship processes are muddy -- which is what gives them play to censor people they simply don't want on their services. Like people who work in the sex industry, and LGBT people, who are most often silenced at the censorship end of these policies. One need only read the news over the past several years to see that legitimate voices get silenced online far more than those of aging skinheads and young Nazis.

But there's a huge difference between talking about sex or questioning corruption in a democracy and saying that the Holocaust wasn't real or advocating race war.

It's, of course, made worse that they've done nothing about it until now, and that their content policies are unclear, hypocritical and unevenly enforced (or left to user reports, which are always abused).

But it all leads to where we are now.

Internet companies like Facebook have been pretending to hold themselves to a country-level bar of "free speech" when we know it's only ever been about the bottom line because all the while they're censoring other topics at the behest of governments or to save face for top-tier users (like Donald Trump). So until now, no businesses were being called out on accountability, or put to the real test of "it's a business so they can actually do as they please, right to refuse service to anyone, etc."

It's definitely fuel for the neo-Nazi fires because they see themselves as persecuted. Right now they're crying oppression, that their "free speech" is impinged upon. Poor Nazi: Facebook kicked you off? You lost your Instagram? PayPal won't do business with you? Don't cry "free speech" for me, Argentina. Welcome to the world of the rest of us, especially sex workers, adult performers, LGBT people and all of us who write about, talk about, make art about or anything else having to do with sex.

Interestingly, this week, three local ACLU chapters of California have all broken rank with ACLU National saying, categorically, "White supremacist violence is not free speech." Holocaust denial is illegal in 16 countries for a reason: That it inspires violence against Jews. And yes, those arguing to keep it alive -- like Facebook -- say it is a matter of free speech.

But to what end is "free speech" justifiable for a company?

Nazis getting kicked to the online curb isn't the end of free speech or the beginning of a slippery slope. It was kind of the whole point of World War II.

Images: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters (Charlottesville / Heyer memorial); Roberto Baldwin/AOL (Reddit); Carlo Allegri / Reuters (WWII veterans)