Silicon Valley steps up fight against hate groups

Alekya Raghavan |Staff Writer

The nation erupted in discussion after last month’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist demonstration took place promoting racism, free speech, and violence.

The incident prompted several public figures, at home and abroad, to speak out and foster change. Among those taking action are several Silicon Valley companies, who have enacted measures against users who identify with supremacist, neo-Nazi, and other white nationalist groups.

Popular online and social media services have implemented strategies to eliminate the ability of these individuals to use their platforms to further their cause.

Technology-based companies and social media platforms like Google, GoDaddy, and GoFundMe are eliminating the ability of hate-groups (and their constituents) to reach broader audiences by removing websites deemed unacceptable by the service provider, blocking them from search engines, even preventing them from registering.

Companies like PayPal and Apple (Apple Pay) are eliminating the potential for hate groups to raise money online.

Other companies are beginning to ban individual users as well. Airbnb canceled accounts associated with the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and will continue to uphold this policy.

OkCupid, a dating app, gained attention for permanently banning Christopher Cantwell, a prominent white nationalist who took part in the rallies at Charlottesville, from its services.

Uber and Lyft, transportation network companies, have issued statements encouraging employees to report and reject anyone who supports racial discrimination.

But while these companies have been applauded for their actions by some, opponents and free speech advocates have raised concerns about first amendment rights when people are blocked from these platforms solely because of their beliefs.        

Senior Tristan Groenewold said that while there may be concerns about limiting people’s accessibility to information, users cannot object since they are agreeing to that company’s terms of agreement.

“I see it in two different ways,” Groenewold said. “Firstly, there’s this idea of the social obligation that these companies owe to people, where they aren’t limiting people’s inflow of information. People shouldn’t be limited from viewing something just because a company said so. That being said, I strongly believe that when it comes to the legality of private companies such as Google, such as Facebook, it is really up to them. Because when it comes down to it, when you use these services you are agreeing to the terms of services, so you really can’t complain about it.”

Senior Grace Finnegan, who, last year, used Uber’s services as much as once a week, said that companies should not filter out people whose beliefs they are not in agreement with, considering they are paying customers.

“It’s okay to get rid of the drivers who have those beliefs, because they don’t want them representing their company and they don’t want people thinking that’s what Uber believes,” Finnegan said. “But when it comes to the customers, most of the time it’s a like a ten minute car ride, and I’m not excusing it, but at the end of the day, they’re paying you. I’m sure there are white supremacists that like ice cream, but we’re not going to tell them they can never have ice cream again. They’re still paying customers. Unless, during a car ride they committed a crime because of those believes, then that individual should be kicked out.”

Students are also being brought into a larger conversation about social issues like racism through the use of these platforms.

Popular applications among students like Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, and YouTube have all taken action to ensure that their users do not hold and propagate hateful beliefs. Twitter and Facebook have banned individual users who have violated their policies. Spotify and YouTube have removed white supremacist artist and offensive videos from their platforms.

Emily Anstaett, a law clerk at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Ohio, said that it is a positive thing that companies are publicly speaking out on the issue because it expands the discussion on white supremacy.

“This is a philosophy of the ACLU: to fight for what you believe in is not to suppress speech, but to give more speech to the issue,” Anstaett said. “This is a perfectly reasonable philosophy to suggest to a business–to not denounce, but speak out on the issue and start a conversation. It’s my personal belief that companies should make business decisions based on the belief systems of the people that belong to that organization. I think it’s great that organizations are denouncing white supremacy and use their voice and espouse their opinions in this way. We’ll see whether it’s an effective tool to combat white supremacy and hate.”