The Fight Over Free Speech Online


When private companies take down Web pages, it isn’t a First Amendment violation, but it does enrage many on the right.

Generally speaking, anyone can say anything online. But, lately, things have started to get complicated. Last week, after neo-Nazis and white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, the neo-Nazi blog the Daily Stormer disappeared from the Internet. GoDaddy, the registrar of the site’s domain, had discontinued its service. The Daily Stormer switched its domain to Google, which promptly shut it down as well. The site is now back up, on the dark Web, with its publisher pleading victimhood on social media. (“I am being unpersoned.”) What happened to the Daily Stormer wasn’t a violation of the First Amendment—private companies are allowed to stifle speech—but it enraged people on the right, many of whom were already deeply skeptical of the puppet masters in Silicon Valley. Before any of this happened, a pro-Trump activist named Jack Posobiec was organizing a multicity “March on Google,” calling the company “an anti-free-speech monopoly.” (Last week, Posobiec announced that the march had been postponed, citing threats from the “alt-left.”)

Jack Conte is not an alt-right activist—he’s a bald, bearded musician from San Francisco—but he, too, once resented the titans of Silicon Valley. A few years ago, Conte was trying to make a living on YouTube. His music videos—funk covers of pop songs, homemade robots playing percussion pads—often went viral. “I made a video that took many, many hours and cost me thousands of dollars,” Conte said. “My fans loved it. It got more than a million views. And I made a hundred and fifty bucks from it. I realized, Clearly, there is a problem with how stuff on the Internet—what we now call ‘content,’ what used to be called ‘art’—gets monetized.” Conte co-founded his own tech company, Patreon, a Web site that allows artists and activists to get paid directly by fans and supporters. A creator posts a description of what she intends to make—a comic strip, a podcast—and patrons sign up to fund it, each chipping in a few dollars a month. Patreon takes a five-per-cent cut. The company now has about eighty employees and a hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar valuation—big enough that many Web denizens consider Conte a new kind of puppet master.

Last month, Lauren Southern, a right-wing activist and pundit who was earning a few thousand dollars a month on Patreon, received an e-mail from the company’s Trust and Safety team. “Here at Patreon we believe in freedom of speech,” it read. “When ideas cross into action, though, we sometimes must take a closer look.” Southern, a videogenic Canadian in her early twenties, whose book was blurbed by Ann Coulter, was known for videos like “White Privilege Is a Dangerous Myth.” Her Patreon page now reads “This page has been removed.”

Southern had participated in an anti-immigration action in the Mediterranean Sea, in which a motorboat tried to prevent a ship from bringing refugees to Europe. In an apologetic YouTube video, Conte insisted that Southern had been banned not for her politics but for her risky behavior. “I didn’t expect to convince everyone, and that’s O.K.,” he said.

Predictably, Southern’s fans were not pleased. “You’re an idiot and a beta cuck,” one commented. Some called for lawsuits. Others linked to a copycat site called Hatreon. (Motto: “A platform for creators, absent thought policing.”) Southern set up her own site, patreonsucks.com. “Big liberal silicon valley companies want me to become a friendly little vlogger that spouts all the right lines,” she wrote. “I won’t let that happen.” She made a YouTube video directing followers to her new site, adding, “As for Patreon, you guys can suck my balls.”

Then came Charlottesville. Jason Kessler, the organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally, had a Patreon page (three backers, generating thirty-three dollars a month). It was swiftly removed for violating Patreon’s rule against “affiliations with known hate groups.” Meanwhile, another Patreon user, the progressive activist Logan Smith, began sharing photos of the torch-wielding mob on his Twitter handle @YesYoureRacist. He urged people to help him identify the participants: “I’ll make them famous.” Online vigilantes complied, and several marchers lost their jobs. A few people were incorrectly identified, causing nonparticipants to receive death threats. Doxing—publishing someone’s private information online—is against Patreon’s rules. Smith claims that his activism wasn’t doxing. “If these people are so proud of their beliefs, then they shouldn’t have a problem with their communities knowing their names,” he said last week.

Patreon disagreed, and Smith’s page was removed. “It doesn’t matter who the victim is,” Conte said. “It could be a convicted murderer. If someone is releasing private information that an individual doesn’t want to be made public, then that’s doxing. And we don’t allow it.” (One person tweeted at Patreon, “he is identifying nazis and you are stopping him at the request of nazis.”) Conte went on, “We’ve been getting it from all sides—of course. I get it. Taking away someone’s income is a hugely onerous thing, and we don’t take it lightly.” He sighed. “We’ve dealt with a huge range of stuff in the past few years, a wider variety than I ever would have imagined. But the fact that we’re talking about swastika flags right now? It just makes me sad.”

By Andrew Marantz a contributing editor, has written for The New Yorker since 2011

SOURCE NEW YORKER 2017

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