NEW YORK | It took bloodshed in Charlottesville to get tech companies to do what civil rights groups have been calling for for years: take a firmer stand against accounts used to promote hate and violence.
In the wake of the deadly clash at a white-nationalist rally last weekend in Virginia, major companies such as Google, Facebook and PayPal are banishing a growing cadre of extremist groups and individuals for violating service terms.
What took so long? For one thing, tech companies have long seen themselves as bastions of free expression.
But the Charlottesville rally seemed to have a sobering effect. It showed how easily technology can be used to organize and finance such events, and how extreme views online can translate into violence offline.
“There is a difference between freedom of speech and what happened in Charlottesville,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, an online racial justice group. The battle of ideas is “different than people who show up with guns to terrorize communities.”
A SLOW REACTION
Tech companies are in a bind. On one hand, they want to be open to as many people as possible so they can show them ads or provide rides, apartments or financial services. On the other hand, some of these users turn out to be white supremacists, terrorists or child molesters.
Keegan Hankes, analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s intelligence project, said his group has been trying for more than a year to get Facebook and PayPal to shut down these accounts. Even now, he said, the two companies are taking action only in the most extreme cases.
“They have policies against violence, racism, harassment,” said Hankes, whose center monitors hate groups and extremism. “The problem is that there has been no enforcement.”
Case in point: The neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer has been around since 2013. But it wasn’t effectively kicked off the internet until it mocked the woman killed while protesting the white nationalists in Charlottesville.
PayPal said groups that advocate racist views have no place on its service, but added that there is a “fine line” when it comes to balancing freedom of expression with taking a stand against violent extremism.
Other companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google struggle with the same balancing act. The fine line is constantly moving and being tested.
Ahead of the rally, Airbnb barred housing rentals to people it believed were traveling to participate. Before and after Charlottesville, PayPal cut off payments to groups that promote hate and violence. GoDaddy and Google yanked the domain name for Daily Stormer following the rally. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are removing known hate groups from their services, and the music streaming service Spotify dropped what it considers hate bands.
CAT AND MOUSE
While traditional brands such as Tiki had no way of knowing that their torches were being bought for the rally, tech companies have tools to identify and ban people with extremist views.
That’s thanks to the troves of data they store on people and to their ability to easily switch off access to users. Airbnb users can link to social media profiles, and the company said it used its existing background checks and “input from the community” to identify users who didn’t align with its standards.
Yet these services also allow for anonymity, which makes their jobs more difficult.
Facebook spokeswoman Ruchika Budhraja said hate groups also know the site’s policies and try to keep things just benign enough to ensure they are not in violation.
For instance, the event page for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville looked fairly innocuous. Budhraja said there was nothing on the page that would suggest it was created by a hate organization. It has since been removed.