Earlier today Kristin Clarke, the president and executive director for the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law announced that they had succeeded in pressuring domain registrar GoDaddy to shut down Richard Spencer’s website, altright.com:
BREAKING: We shut down Richard Spencer’s Altright website. We will continue using every tool in our arsenal to confront white supremacists, the alt-right & those who incite violence and hate in our country. We applaud @GoDaddy for heeding our call and pulling the site. pic.twitter.com/1gU2ZOlNXN
— Kristen Clarke (@KristenClarkeJD) May 3, 2018
Richard Spencer, of course, is the right-wing firebrand whose outspoken and controversial views on race have marked him as a “Nazi” in the eyes of the Left.
The Lawyer’s Committee sent their complaint to GoDaddy on April 20, 2018, and began the letter by applauding GoDaddy’s actions in shutting down the website for the white supremacist Daily Stormer in the weeks following the violent Charlottesville protests. It’s worth noting that these protests, whose participants were described as “white supremacists” and “Nazis,” were largely peaceful until members of Antifa and the Alt-Left showed up in counter-protest. Subsequent protests months later in Charlottesville by the same groups were also non-violent.
In their complaint, the Lawyer’s Committee alleged that altright.com “includes content that ‘promotes’ and/or ‘encourages’ illegal activity against minorities and other historically marginalized groups.” The Lawyer’s Committee argued that this content violated GoDaddy’s term’s of service. However, the group could only cite one article titled “Trump Can Enact His MAGA Agenda Any Time He Wants” in which the author speculated that it might be time for a more violent approach to border security.
The passage that so offended the sensibilities of the Lawyer’s Committee reads as follows (emphasis theirs):
A little bit of lawlessness and savagery in the ranks of border patrol should be encouraged (you see this in Bulgaria and Russia where private citizens and militia do much of the border patrolling, far more effectively I surmise). They are not afraid to dole out a little bit of punishment to their would-be conquerors (megalomaniacal Muhammadens). One of the West’s primary problems is that we have become too law-centered, too law-abiding. Superiors would do well to turn their heads to a little bit of brutality and vengeance by our guys on the border, perhaps even tolerating a massacre here or there.
It’s worth noting that the bulk of the complaint filed by the Lawyer’s Committee wasn’t centered around the actual content of altright.com, but rather the comment section of the website. The Lawyer’s Committee cited several examples of comments allegedly found on altright.com that included racist and anti-Semitic language, as well as calls for violence against minorities and Jews. The fact that altright.com allowed these comments to remain, rather than deleting them, seems to be the reasoning behind why the site deserved to be shut down.
GoDaddy released a statement to BuzzFeed which read:
“In instances where a site goes beyond the mere exercise of these freedoms, however, and crosses over to promoting, encouraging, or otherwise engaging in specific acts of violence against any person, we will take action,” GoDaddy’s statement read. “It is our determination that altright.com crossed the line and encouraged and promoted violence in a direct and threatening manner.”
The fact that the Lawyer’s Committee cited altright.com’s comment section in their complaint is extremely telling. Comment sections in any website are almost like the Wild West where anything goes and law and order is enforced by the website community’s own rules of etiquette. Many sites employ some kind of moderation in their comment sections, and as such the bulk of the inevitably offensive/violent/spam comments that appear are dealt with appropriately.
Many sites, however, are unable to employ 24/7 comment moderation. This is especially true for very small websites, or websites run by solo bloggers. Despite what you may have read your average blogger is not fabulously wealthy and cannot devote the amount of time and energy required to effectively police a site’s comment section. GoDaddy has established the precedent that a comment section rife with allegedly violent and offensive content can be used to shut a website down. What happens, though, if a website is able to police its comment sections effectively, but a few nasty posts slip through the cracks?
Let’s say, for example, that Site A is managed by a few bloggers. These bloggers don’t make anywhere near enough money to blog full time, however they manage to make enough to cover their hosting costs. Site A does have a comment section, and the bloggers are able to police it effectively. Many of the inappropriate comments that appear are dealt with fairly quickly. However, inevitably a few hateful/violent/racist comments slip through the cracks and go unnoticed. Is this site now subject to being shut down because of those few comments? What is the threshold for the number of racist comments that would cause a site to be shut down?
Moreover, how does one judge which comments are hateful/violent/racist/etc.? Most of the time the answer to this question is apparent. A comment exhorting Trump to gas all the Jews just like the Great and Wonderful Adolf Hitler would be unacceptable by most people’s standards. What about a comment, however, that links a study suggesting that there may be differences in IQ based on race? Or a comment that speculates that concerned patriots may eventually be forced to take up arms against an oppressive government? Where is the line drawn, and what is the standard used to even begin to figure out where that line should be drawn?
What about websites that use comment sections hosted by third parties? Can a website be removed for odious contents found on services such as Disqus, Spot.Im, or Facebook? The website itself is not technically hosting the comments. Would GoDaddy still consider those comments to be within the bounds of their terms of service?
Perhaps the most important question that must be asked by every conservative or center-right website is what is the point of even having a comment section? Comment sections take time (and money in some cases) to police. Valuable time that could be used in perfecting the website or creating content. Why bother putting blood, sweat, and tears into maintaining something that could potentially be used to shut down your entire website, and destroy potentially years of hard work?
These questions do not have easy answers. I suspect that many websites will begin to ditch their problems in favor of an online magazine-style format. It’s much easier to do that than to worry about losing your website due to the fickle whims of a leftist group with the means and money to pressure your domain registrar into shutting you down.