The Fight Over Free Speech Online – The New Yorker

Posted: August 22, 2017 at 11:44 pm

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 sites 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 wasnt a violation of the First Amendmentprivate companies are allowed to stifle speechbut 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 activisthes a bald, bearded musician from San Franciscobut he, too, once resented the titans of Silicon Valley. A few years ago, Conte was trying to make a living on YouTube. His music videosfunk covers of pop songs, homemade robots playing percussion padsoften 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 Internetwhat we now call content, what used to be called artgets 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 makea comic strip, a podcastand 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 valuationbig 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 companys 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 didnt expect to convince everyone, and thats O.K., he said.

Predictably, Southerns fans were not pleased. Youre 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, Big liberal silicon valley companies want me to become a friendly little vlogger that spouts all the right lines, she wrote. I wont 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 Patreons 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: Ill make them famous. Online vigilantes complied, and several marchers lost their jobs. A few people were incorrectly identified, causing nonparticipants to receive death threats. Doxingpublishing someones private information onlineis against Patreons rules. Smith claims that his activism wasnt doxing. If these people are so proud of their beliefs, then they shouldnt have a problem with their communities knowing their names, he said last week.

Patreon disagreed, and Smiths page was removed. It doesnt matter who the victim is, Conte said. It could be a convicted murderer. If someone is releasing private information that an individual doesnt want to be made public, then thats doxing. And we dont allow it. (One person tweeted at Patreon, He is identifying nazis and you are stopping him at the request of nazis .) Conte went on, Weve been getting it from all sidesof course. I get it. Taking away someones income is a hugely onerous thing, and we dont take it lightly. He sighed. Weve 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 were talking about swastika flags right now? It just makes me sad.

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The Fight Over Free Speech Online - The New Yorker

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