It’s impossible to discuss the anti-Semitic hatred of Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers without discussing the technology that facilitated such vitriol. Shortly after news of the shooting broke, an account attributed to Bowers was found on Gab, a clone of Twitter that markets itself, under the guise of “standing up for free speech,” to people too bigoted even for Twitter to tolerate — a weirdly high (or low?) bar to clear.
Anyway, if you want a perfect example of how the far right is able to bring outsized levels of hatred into the mainstream, Gab’s response to the shooting is one. In an official statement on its now-suspended Medium account, Gab wrote, “We have nothing but love for all people and freedom. We have consistently disavowed all violence.” The statement also noted Gab’s cooperation with law enforcement regarding Bowers’s account.
The statement is strategically unobjectionable. Who could argue against love for all people and freedom of speech? Officially, Gab is an apolitical service committed to the principle of freedom of speech. Unofficially, it is a barely disguised haven for racists. (Gab’s stance regarding bigotry is that more speech is the solution — not unlike Twitter’s suggestion that journalists should just fact-check Alex Jones until he goes away.) On Twitter, Gab is being less diplomatic about the renewed attention to its platform. This weekend, their tweets bragged about the site receiving more than 1 million hits an hour in the wake of the shooting; insulted journalists criticizing the site; and celebrated the election of fascist Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil.
Gab is also throwing a tantrum regarding its loss of access to technology services that power the site. The registrar GoDaddy threatened to revoke the site’s domain name (making it difficult to get to Gab by typing in its URL, “gab.ai”). Elsewhere, PayPal and Stripe stopped processing payments made to support the site’s upkeep. Gab was also kicked off of its hosting service, making it impossible to get to the site even with its domain name. By last night, Gab was claiming that it was “under attack” because technology providers decided not to support a digital meeting place favored by and catering to racists. The site specifically called on Donald Trump and other conservative politicians to take up its cause (which, as a reminder, is effectively, “It should be illegal for non-governmental enterprise to punish us for fostering bigotry”).
This series of events echoes the deplatforming of neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer in the wake of 2017’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Hounded by criticism, Matthew Prince announced that he was ending the Daily Stormer’s relationship with his company, Cloudflare, which provides services for protecting sites against distributed denial-of service (DDoS) attacks and maintaining their stability. He stated that he was uncomfortable with his company’s power to effectively kick a site off the internet. (Citing their belief that DDoS protection should be considered a right on the modern internet, Cloudflare subsequently began offering it for free to the public, mostly eliminating the criticism that the company profits from providing protection to sites that spread hate.) PayPal, Stripe, and GoDaddy have been put on a similar defensive footing this time around.
The Gab situation, in addition to shedding more light on online radicalization, has once again raised the debate surrounding the internet’s structure. What parts of the internet are a right, and what parts of it are a privilege? Where in the hierarchy of foundational systems and protocols is that boundary?
Within the bounds of the law, net neutrality principles dictate that any internet user should be able to access Gab and upload garbage to it if they so please. Those are rights.
But that’s probably where the list of rights ends. Hosting a website is a separate proposition from accessing one. A domain name, hosting servers, DDoS protection, and credit-card payment processing are not inherent rights of internet users, nor should they be. They entail ongoing, contingent agreements between separate parties; they are modern conveniences for those who adhere to the general social contract of not being an enormous asshole. The companies that pulled their support for Gab made it very difficult for the site to stay online, but they did not make it impossible. (There is an argument to be made that fundamental web services like domain registrars should be impartial, but given that the threshold for punitive action seems to be, roughly, “explicit Neo-Nazi online hangout,” I’m not losing too much sleep, yet.) Gab is a terrible site with a higher-than-average proportion of racists, sexist, xenophobes, Islamophobes and anti-Semites, and nobody is obligated to specifically provide infrastructure support for them or maintain those business relationships in the face of public pressure.
What these situations further expose is another type of moderation that is lacking in the tech industry, separate from the poor moderation efforts plaguing sites like Twitter and Facebook. Online companies like PayPal and Stripe make it very easy to use and deploy their tools without anyone reviewing who is doing so. This makes such tools widely accessible and affordable to upstarts, bootstrappers, and the technically deficient. It also forces the companies to be reactive to bad actors rather than proactive in weeding them out.
The era of tech companies playing dumb about who’s harnessing their tools is coming to an end. This does not bode well for social media shitposters, and it also threatens to ensnare the less flashy infrastructure providers that gird small independent communities.