The sometimes-uncomfortable relationship between online service providers and their more unsavory customers changed in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy. Companies that don’t take a public stand on the content they carry started to take one, with both GoDaddy and Cloudflare dropping infamous neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer. Others, like PayPal, which had quietly taken one-off actions on hate sites in the past, started dropping customers by the dozens, including American Renaissance, League of the South, VDARE, and Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute and AltRight.com. While tech’s crackdown on violence-inciting white nationalist sites came rapidly following the turmoil in Virginia, it took years of cajoling by activists and advocates to get Silicon Valley ready for action.
“We put out our first report about cyberhate in 1985,” says Brittan Heller, director of technology and society for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). In 2012, the ADL inaugurated its Working Group on Cyberhate. “This was one of the first bodies to get organizations across the tech industry to talk about these issues,” says Heller. The ADL doesn’t publish a list of its members, but Heller says it includes “all the major tech companies like Facebook and Google, Apple and Microsoft, Twitter.” In 2014, the Working Group put out best-practice guidelines for tech companies to handle online hate—like clearly explaining terms of service for users and providing mechanisms for people to report abuse.
Going For The Money
That same year, the Southern Poverty Law Center began its Silicon Valley push. “In 2014, we decided that we needed to at least make an effort to work with the tech companies to de-monetize hate,” says Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project. SPLC persuaded Apple to stop selling music by white power bands including Skrewdriver, Max Resist, and the Bully Boys (with tunes like “Fire Up the Ovens”) on iTunes. Amazon agreed to drop many hate sites from its affiliate program, which pays site owners if people clicking on ads or other links to Amazon go on to make a purchase.
The big prize, though, would be PayPal. “It’s the banking system for the white supremacist movement,” says Beirich, who is not one to speak delicately. “We’ve approached them, we’ve given them information about these hate groups. They’ve done nothing.” Yet another organization, Color of Change, had a different experience. “Some companies were very willing to talk to us, like PayPal,” says Rashad Robinson, the group’s executive director. “Others, it was a bit tougher to get them to engage in conversation.”
PayPal was a tag-team effort between SPLC, which started talks in 2015, and Color of Change, which began efforts to defund white nationalist groups in February. (It resulted in the Blood Money petition that launched on August 16.) “When Color of Change started to meet with PayPal months ago, we provided all our correspondence with Paypal to [them],” says Beirich. Robinson says his group could not have mounted its campaign without SPLC’s research on dangerous sites. “We made some very clear demands around a whole set of sites that we felt weren’t just about hate, but were about promoting violence and terrorism,” he says.
The result: PayPal agreed to drop over three dozen sites that had used PayPal for e-commerce or donations. And the company released a public statement on the changes, a break from its usual approach of quietly dropping sites. “This would not have happened right away this quickly if we had not been pushing, and there had not been internal debates inside these companies, where there were people probably on our side and people who were not,” says Robinson.
PayPal wouldn’t discuss its conversations with groups. But spokesman Justin Higgs replied with an email that read, in part, “The company welcomes constructive dialogue on this important issue and embraces feedback from groups that desire to work with us to prohibit hateful, intolerant and violent organizations from using our platform.”
The level of rapport between advocates and companies varies, as do their perceptions of progress. “It depends on the company you’re talking about, like Facebook has always been better about content when there’s a violation,” says Beirich. “Twitter goes crazy on ISIS accounts, but will let other people post basically whatever they want.”
Heller, however, counts Twitter as a major success for the ADL, which is a member of the company’s Trust and Safety Council, created in 2016. That year saw rampant anti-Semitic harassment of reporters (regardless of their ethnic, religious, or even political background). Heller, a former Department of Justice attorney, used data analysis to find 2.6 million discriminatory tweets and identify the main accounts behind them. The data persuaded Twitter to suspend 2,000 white supremacist accounts.
Other times, the results are mixed. “Google was a very complicated situation because they were very open to removing monetization, like the Google ads,” says Beirich. “But when we brought up issues with their algorithm [which SPLC says promotes fake news], they were like, ‘We are not talking to you about that.'”
Regardless of the company, steady pressure has been required. The ADL advocates a soft touch, compared to the SPLC’s in-your-face style. “It’s better to work with the tech companies as a trusted partner so we can be critical and they can listen,” says Heller, who takes a diplomatic tone. “And we can help them with the problems and really push from the inside for change.” Beirich says that SPLC tried the collaborative approach, but was frustrated by the lack of results and felt that the Valley wasn’t taking them seriously. So she and her team went on the offensive, putting out research like an excoriating report on security provider Cloudflare’s hate-site clients.
Color of Change also went public when diplomacy stalled. “PayPal knew that we were going public, launching this [Blood Money] campaign,” says Robinson. “And we heard from PayPal [the night before] that they were getting rid of a set of sites.”
Whether working publicly or privately, advocates have had to push for action. Ever politic, Heller says that the ADL was “encouraging” companies for months to drop white supremacist sites. Companies were aware of intensifying dangers over the past year, she says. Still it took the deadly drama in Charlottesville to get most tech companies moving. “I think it was a Rubicon, because it made it very clear that this was not people exercising their freedom of expression,” says Heller. “Incitement to violence . . . is not protected speech.”