GoDaddy has pulled the plug on another online peddler of violence.
The popular internet registration service last week shut down altright.com, a website created by white nationalist leader Richard Spencer and popular with many in the so-called alt-right movement.
The takedown is the latest example of how companies like GoDaddy are increasingly responding to growing public pressure to clamp down on violent sites in the wake of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer.
GoDaddy, which registers domains for more than 75 million websites around the world, said it generally does not delist sites that promote hate, racism and bigotry on the ground that such content is protected as free speech.
But it said altright.com had “crossed the line and encouraged and promoted violence in a direct and threatening manner.”
“In instances where a site goes beyond the mere exercise of these freedoms, however, and crosses over to promoting, encouraging or otherwise engaging in specific acts of violence against any person, we will take action,” GoDaddy said in a statement emailed to VOA.
The company would not say whether it canceled altright.com’s domain registration in response to pressure but it stressed that “we take all complaints about content on websites very seriously, and have a team dedicated to investigate each complaint.”
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington-based civil rights organization, said it filed such a complaint with GoDaddy last month, citing several instances in which altright.com carried content that advocated violence.
In one example, a January 26, 2018, article encouraged “use of live ammunition at the border, in order to create a substantial chance that they [immigrants crossing the border] lose their life in the process,” according to the organization’s complaint.
Kristen Clarke, the group’s president and executive director, said the shutdown of altright.com was part of her organization’s campaign to combat a recent “hate crime crisis” in the United States.
“We know that so much hate that we see today originates online,” Clarke said. “It originates in dangerous platforms and online hubs that provide a space to people to essentially coordinate violence and incite people to violence.”
There is no tally of sites that promote violence on the internet. But Clarke said there are “too many” and that her organization is in talks with domain and web hosting companies to shut down close to a dozen of them. She declined to name the websites.
“We’re focused on some of the biggest platforms and places where we’re seeing some of the most dangerous and violent activity,” she said. “We’ll see if those efforts bear fruit.”
Spencer denounced the closure of his website.
“The Left will not stop their censorship crusade with the Alt-Right,” Spencer tweeted on Thursday. “They’re going to come for every right-wing website. Free speech will cease to exist if the GOP fails to enact legislation.”
Altright.com’s takedown comes as public scrutiny of hate sites has grown and internet intermediaries have started to strictly enforce their terms of service and acceptable use policies in the wake of the Charlottesville rally.
Prior to the rally, tech companies had largely left it to users to police online content. But after the march, social media and payment processing companies took steps to close the accounts of several white nationalist leaders, and hosting companies shut down websites associated with the movement such as The Daily Stormer and Stormfront.
“They did know that they had very hateful groups using their services but there didn’t seem to be either political or public pressure to get rid of them,” said Natasha Tusikov, a criminology professor at York University in Toronto.
After Charlottesville, “we saw a number of them suddenly become more pressured publicly and politically.”
Amid growing public pressure, she said, “I think we’re going to see more of these cases.”
But shuttering entire websites is not likely to eliminate violence-mongering online. For one, there is no dearth of small services that would host sites banished by others. Indeed, while The Daily Stormer and Stormfront were forced by their closure to hop from host to host for several months, they eventually found a home. Altright.com is likely to similarly resurface.
The crackdown can also push some websites underground into the dark web — content on networks that use the internet but require specific authorization to access — making it difficult to track them and find out “who their members are and what they’re doing,” Tusikov said.
Tusikov said that what she finds even more problematic is the way in which these sites are shut down. Internet intermediaries such as GoDaddy give themselves “considerable” latitude to close websites for any number of reasons.
“A lot of us would agree that any kind of hateful violent speech should be removed,” she said. “The question is in murkier areas, when it gets to other types of perhaps controversial speech but lawful speech.”
In the U.S. and other countries with a strong free-speech tradition, governments have largely shied away from regulating online content, leaving it to internet intermediaries to assume the role. But Tusikov said internet intermediaries are ill-equipped to distinguish between legal and illegal content.
Instead, she said, policymakers should institute regulations such as the Manila Principles, a set of standards adopted by civil society groups and digital rights advocates in 2015. Among other things, the Manila Principles require that content restriction policies must “follow due process” and “comply with the tests of necessity and proportionality.”
“So if you have one problem with one element of copyright infringement, you shouldn’t take the entire site down,” Tusikov said. “You should deal with that one problem.”