Charlottesville, Va., will be etched into American history, but not, perhaps, only as the day a new generation of Ku Klux Klan members went maskless and white America finally called a white terrorist what he is. Textbooks might not only record it as when right-wing hatred roiled up from a maelstrom of racial tension to drown a woman’s life over a monument to a racist general who defended slavery. The last week might not simply be remembered as when Donald Trump, with childish petulance, was quicker to insult a black businessman who disavowed the president over his weak response to Charlottesville than he was to distance himself from Nazism—a breed of hatred America once went to war against.
Rather, Charlottesville might need to be footnoted as when hate groups became harder to track when hackers fought back against white supremacists’ newfound anonymity for shits and giggles, and freedom of speech as it applies to the internet was forever changed in America.
After white supremacist hub the Daily Stormer released an article denigrating Heather Heyer, the victim of the hit-and-run terrorist attack, its host, GoDaddy, decided that Stormer had violated its terms of service. Stormer tried to move its domain to Google, but the towering tech company immediately Dikembe Mutombo-ed that shit. Afterward, Zoho, the Stormer’s email service provider, dropped them like they were hot. Not long afterward, Vanguard America, another popular white supremacist site, went dark, too.
Inside 24 hours, three tech companies did more to silence racism than Trump. It was swift, sweet catharsis. But as with many comfort foods, the health effects might turn out to be bitter—for two reasons: free speech and anonymity.
People often decry tech companies’ censorship as a violation of the First Amendment. (See: white man who just found out he isn’t entitled to express vehement bile anywhere he chooses.) It isn’t. The First protects you from threats and government deprivation of your freedom of speech.
Recently, the Supreme Court struck down a law that once prevented convicted sex offenders from using social media—because such forums are often frequented by minors—recognizing social media as a modern public square. Consequently, blocking people from using it would be a violation of free speech.
Several Twitter users have sued Trump for blocking them on Twitter, because, after all, why should they be deprived of the opportunity to bask in the resplendent glow of Sir Cheetos Puffs’ wisdom?
This concept of simultaneously treating or increasingly recognizing the internet as a public sphere and protecting companies’ right to censor have come into conflict. It’s plausible that the next decade could see a Supreme Court case calling to better codify the limitations of tech companies’ right to censor hate speech. As the most impactful case of tech-company censorship to date, Charlottesville and the ensuing shutdown of the Daily Stormer could have set a precedent to be cited either in favor of censoring hate speech or against it.
And there is a case to be made against censoring hate speech, as repulsive as it is. For one, the expectation that tech companies should police inflammatory comments could lead to them censoring, say, #BlackLivesMatter. Moreover, while silencing racists and pushing them ever further to the fringes of society is cathartic, it may be more important now more than ever to remember why civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, who stand tallest as history’s beacons of hope, are those who chose the high road—who chose to be empathetic, acknowledge their persecutors’ humanity and appeal to what moral values they did have.
It’s increasingly easy for someone to tumble into echo chambers of confirmation bias, where they never intellectually interact with people with different views—only abstractify and insult them. It’s easier to be pushed toward extremism. The Obama administration realized this and allocated a $10 million fund to counter recruitment for neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations. Then Trump’s administration slashed that funding.
Now white supremacists are being pushed to the fringes of society, and not necessarily in a productive way. In less than 24 hours after Stormer was shut down, a social media campaign began disseminating the URL to a new version of the site on the Tor Browser, the darknet.
This isn’t the first time racists have huddled together in the darknet. However, the Stormer was the white supremacist hub, with 2.87 million visits a month. That’s depressingly popular, but this centrality made sites like the Stormer and Vanguard a treasure trove of data for organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. Regular websites also require IP addresses to be archived. This is useful to law-enforcement agencies when they need to track down suspects.
The Tor Browser doesn’t render all users perfectly anonymous, but it’s considerably harder for law-enforcement agencies and hate-group researchers alike to mine info that could allow them to track white supremacists. Initial research by Motherboard cybersecurity reporter Joseph Cox has even noted that there doesn’t seem to be any issues with the site that might allow users to be easily de-anonymized.
Since then, a hacker took credit for launching a distributed denial of service attack, a type of cyberattack wherein networks of internet-accessible devices are harnessed to overwhelm a system with traffic, in order to shut down the new site. The attacker or attackers claimed that they “don’t really care about either side.” They did it because they could.
Nevertheless, if the site goes back up, white supremacists will flock together again. And in the process of deciding that white supremacists should once again wear hoods, tech companies might have just made sure they’ll do so in greater anonymity.