My Japan Times JBC 108: “In wake of Charlottesville, U.S. should follow Japan and outlaw hate speech”, Aug 24, 2017

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JUST BE CAUSE
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In wake of Charlottesville, U.S. should follow Japan and outlaw hate speech
BY DEBITO ARUDOU
THE JAPAN TIMES AUG 23, 2017

Let’s talk about Charlottesville.

As you probably heard, two weeks ago there was a protest in a small Virginia town against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general who defended slavery in the American South. Various hate groups, including white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, assembled there with shields, weapons, fascist flags and anti-Semitic slogans. They were met with counterprotest, and things got violent. A supremacist slammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19.

Charlottesville has shaken hope for a post-racial America to the core. But before readers in Japan breathe a sigh of relief and think, “It couldn’t happen here, not in peaceful Japan,” remember this:

Japan has also had plenty of hate rallies — there was about one per day on average in 2013 and 2014, according to the Justice Ministry. Rightist xenophobes and government-designated hate groups have assembled and held demos nationwide. Bearing signs calling foreign residents “cockroaches,” calling for a Nanking-style massacre of Koreans in an Osaka Koreatown, even advocating the extermination of “all Koreans, good or bad,” Japan’s haters have also used violence (some lethal) against the country’s minorities.

As JBC has argued before (“Osaka’s move on hate speech should be just the first step,” Jan. 31, 2016), freedom of speech is not an absolute. And hate speech is special: It ultimately and necessarily leads to violence, due to the volatile mix of dehumanization with flared tempers.

That’s why Japan decided to do something about it. In 2016 the Diet passed a law against hate speech (albeit limiting it to specifically protect foreign residents). And it has had an effect: Japanese media reports fewer rallies and softer invective.

America, however, hasn’t gotten serious about this. It has no explicit law against hate speech, due to fears about government censorship of freedom of speech. Opponents argue that the only cure is freer speech — that somehow hate will be balanced out by reasonable and rational counter-hate. That persuasion will win out.

But in 2016, it didn’t. Hate speech is precisely how Donald J. Trump got elected president…

Read the rest at: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2017/08/23/issues/wake-charlottesville-u-s-follow-japan-outlaw-hate-speech/

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16 comments on “My Japan Times JBC 108: “In wake of Charlottesville, U.S. should follow Japan and outlaw hate speech”, Aug 24, 2017

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Ok, I’ll play devils advocate and bite…

    As a resident of Japan why should I care about any racism or discrimination in America?
    Racism and discrimination are institutionalized and legal in Japan. In America it is not legal.

    Japan does have ‘hate-speech’ laws, but they are toothless and should not be emulated. Kagoike was sending anti-Korean hate speech to parents at his kindergarten, but he hasn’t been charged for hate-speech. Neither have any of Japan’s racist politicians. They can make racist comments and society agrees with them, there is no civil debate of the issue.

    Contrast that with the wide spectrum of condemnation Trump has received from across the spectrum of US society, V’s the deafening silence when Blinky Ishihara blurts out hatred.

    Can we not agree that there is nothing the US should seek to emulate of Japan on this issue?

    And even if the US should emulate of Japan, shouldn’t this be news for residents of the US rather than Japan?

    I fear that the article presents a ‘well done team Japan’ self-congratulatory approach to a problem Japan is conversely seeking to hide from the world rather than addressing properly.

    Ultimately, my fear is that Dr. Debito has fallen into a trap I predicted on Debito.org when Trump won the election; apologists for Japan will use Trump as the ultimate deflection from Japan’s racism and discrimination issues. “B, b, but Trump!” should not be used as an excuse for Japan’s failings.

    Whilst I agree with, and am sympathetic to Dr. Debito’s anti-Trump outrage, I fear that he has given a degree of credit to Japanese society that isn’t honestly deserved and unfairly tarnished all America with Trumps racism.

    Ultimately, I never read JT for US news, and JT’s constant desire to devote so much content to the worst aspects of the US (racism, crime, poverty) serve a Japanese right-wing agenda that should be distrusted; The ‘You think Japan is bad? Well you should take a look at America!’ deflection strategy on a daily basis is tiring and irrelevant to my life in Japan.

    Trump is an absolute godsend to Japanese racists coz he gets them off the hook.

    Reply
    • Loverilakkuma says:

      @JDG,

      I fully understand your frustration with the issue(s) that would drive us to a different venue. I know you are not the only one in this, for sure. I guess some people feel uncomfortable with venue Debito is trying to explore in this piece possibly due to the words: US “needs to be on the same page with Japan.” Since many of us here are long-term residents(or used to live in Japan for substantial period of time) dealing with lots of social issues/life challenges related to human rights, portraying Japan as a part of citizenship model desirable to improvement of ongoing social injustice in the west(or any foreign country) makes them feel a bit uncomfortable if not betrayed. But you need to keep in mind that one’s critical judgement on works by favorite author is separate from one’s personal like/dislike of author. Don’t let your frustration/disappointment translate into criticism of author, just because the venue Debito is leading us does not agree with your taste. Many people fall into that fallacy, ending up being a critic of author(s) they use to support by misconstruing his/her attempt to create a new venue as declaration of switching position. Think about Thomas Frank or Glenn Greenwald. Both writers are well known democrats and liberal. Does publishing the articles critical of Democratic base make them unDemocrat, and conservative because of the issue(s) they choose? No, it’s not. Neither does that characterize Debito as an apologist for Japanese establishment. If someone believes it does, he/she does not pay attention. That’s it.

      Actually I’m very glad that Debito opens up new space for critical engagement for broad understanding of race/human rights. Some people tend to over-emphasize the uniqueness of Japanese society to argue that social issues affecting democracy and citizenship in Japan are discrete–or even worse, non-existent(Hence, many western scholars overlook the concept of race in Japanese social science). It’s problematic to shape that belief and normalize it, because it would eventually stall or shut down conversations.

      Reply
      • Jim Di Griz says:

        Yeah, you’re overthinking my position.
        I just think what happened in Charlottesville has got nothing to do with me, and I don’t understand a ‘Japanese’ newspaper’s constant desire to browbeat me for being American.
        Doesn’t make me want to renew my subscription.

        Reply
  • realitycheck says:

    Good article as usual. The USA’s situation certainly needs looking at especially in light of the fact that some other western countries deal with hateful speech and behavior by invoking laws and by-laws to do with disorderly behavior, public nuisance, harassment etc.

    These certainly help damp down the extremists and what they can do – and should also be used against other extremists such as the so-called ‘Antifa’ who claim to be progressive but quite rightly dress in black like Mussolini’s blackshirts.

    I think too much credit is being given to Japan here, however. The flagrant public disturbances and threatening presence of the Japanese ultra-right can be seen weekly in every Japanese city.

    When laws are made so law enforcement starts cracking down on the uyoku for causing public disturbances through noise pollution and intimidation, then Japan can be considered some kind of model even if the hate speech law is good.

    The recent flagrant use of the Japanese War Flag in official business of the Self-Defense Forces is a disgusting example of intimidation by symbols associated with destruction and violence. Note how Germany will never, ever use a Nazi flag officially and has laws to deal with Nazi symbols but yet again, the world and Japanese media are giving Japanese fascist symbols a pass.

    Japan also permits foreigners to be harassed and abused in public with no reaction from law enforcement or the Japanese public. Try doing that in most western countries and a trip to the police station and an appointment in court is the result.

    From first-hand experience and other foreigners’ accounts, it seems that bitter, racist Japanese men feel absolutely free to mouth off at foreigners, often women, minding their own business, or in a case I heard about just today, riding bicycles full-on at a foreign woman and screaming at her because apparently a dangerous cyclist targeting a foreigner walking in a mostly pedestrian shopping area is just dandy in Japan.

    Over the last two years or so especially there seems to be an increase in cowardly verbal abuse directed at often female foreigners who are somewhere by themselves.

    In our countries this would be recognised as the racism it is but Tokyo from my observation is still around 30 years or so behind most developed countries’ cities.

    I don’t see Tokyo as being internationalised or sophisticated – it’s more the opposite especially as it is the nation’s capital. It’s not difficult to see the link between public displays of racist resentment at foreigners and Japanese war flags being acceptable again.

    The continuing racism and xenophobia that is not being addressed in Japan, especially in the nation’s capital, is down to politicians who want to keep it that way and the spineless Japanese public who insist on their rights in our countries but are quite willing to insist in Japan that their country is unique so rights don’t apply to non Japanese. Or to do the usual see no evil, hear no evil act of denial that anything is wrong with the ‘kind, hospitable, peaceful’ Japanese people.
    Japan has dined out enough on this stereotype and this delusion. The Tokyo public’s tolerance of bullyboys abusing foreigners is disgraceful and points to the deeper problems here. Yes we can go home if we don’t like it but don’t tell it is fine, is a misunderstanding, or does not exist.

    Reply
  • Baudrillard says:

    Average Taro: “Trump wa Kowai desu ne.”
    Me (Devils Advocate): “Ishihara Shintaro san to Trump wa naka ga ii desu ka? Tada, kiteiru” (Do Ishihara and Trump have a good relationship? Just asking.”

    Average Taro (face turns red): …………

    Seems just like China; you are free to criticize other countries’ politicians, but not your own.

    Double standard. I shut down all political “opinions” (not their own) by taking the mickey. Why would anyone take Japanese political opinions seriously?

    They always dronelessly vote in the same old oyaji anyway.

    “Change…” (they can’t). I ‘m outty.

    Reply
    • Jim Di Griz says:

      Yeah, maybe we can all agree that Trump isn’t very good at being President, but I honestly don’t understand what the goal of this article was in relation to NJ human rights.
      Even in Trumps America, Japanese are treated better than NJ in Japan.

      — The point of the article was to talk about Charlottesville. What happened, and what could be done. Since under JBC’s rubric I cannot talk about world events without relating them somehow to Japan, I said here is something that is sorely needed in America: a law against hate speech. If various other countries (even Japan, of all places) can do one, then for heaven’s sake so can America.

      Reply
      • Jim Di Griz says:

        Thank you for unpacking that for me. It was necessary.
        I would argue that freedom of speech is protected by the US constitution, and therefore hate-speech laws would be unconstitutional. And to back that up, I’d point to Japan as an example. In Japan the constitution protects freedom of speech (for japanese only!), therefore the hate speech law Japan introduced has no teeth, no penalties, precisely because it would be unconstitutional (not that Japanese courts care) to prosecute a japanese national for their speech.
        I would prefer in Japan (an in America too) to see people prosecuted for inciting violence, inciting murder, breaching the peace, and causing public disturbances. All of these laws already exist in the US and Japan, and could easily be used to prosecute those making hate speech comments under an existing legal framework.
        Lock them up!

        Reply
  • Speech should not be banned. One of the foundations of the U.S.’ liberal democracy is the First Amendment. Oh yes, the U.S. has many problems, but the First Amendment was created to allow for uncomfortable speech. Sure, there are issues with uncomfortable speech however the benefits far outweigh the issues as the population is allowed to speak freely and openly criticize the government (including the U.S. current President) without fear of reprisal.

    In Charlottesville, a mentally ill man with a history of beating his wheelchair bound mother ran over a group of people and killed an innocent young lady and caused a firestorm. Very sad.

    A group of White Nationalists (who I despise) obtained a permit to hold this rally (after intervention by the ACLU – not exactly a right wing organization) and were confronted by Antifa thugs (who I also despise) with bats, bags of urine, etc.

    The real issue is that the U.S. is divided beyond repair and unfortunately events like this will cause a loss of civil liberties for the populace. The call for taking away constitutionally protected liberties is playing right into the hands of the elites.

    — Fine. But we’re essentially talking past one another here. How about going beyond the slogans and actually taking on some of the points I raised in my column? Quote bits of it and address your counterarguments specifically to those quotes. Thank you.

    I’m not going to allow discussion here (as it has elsewhere) to devolve into sloganeering. That goes for people wishing to tackle the points that Dave raised above. Don’t do it, because those very same points are being taken up everywhere else, and you can head out there if you want to defend an already firmly-held stance. Thus comments about the topic that are not about the column in specific will not be approved, sorry.

    Reply
    • Debito,

      Regarding your reply to my comment, fair enough. I do not see what I said as “sloganeering” however. As you suggested I will try to tackle your words and point out where I disagree (and agree) with you.

      — Hi Dave. I appreciate that very much. Thank you for engaging in constructive discussion as requested. I will comment in boldface like this throughout your post as answers.

      First, the title; “In wake of Charlottesville, U.S. should follow Japan and outlaw hate speech”

      My issues with this:

      1. Who will define what hate speech is and how will we limit the definition from creeping towards a definition of hate speech being speaking out against the government or government officials? Will people vote on what hate speech is? Will this be decided by a small group of people? Or a group of academics?

      — As defined in my January 31, 2016 column on the subject referred to in this column, hate speech, as per the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is meant to mean “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” America, like Japan, signed to the ICCPR in 1977 and ratified it in 1992, so there is legal obligation out there behind a push for a law against hate speech. How that will be properly codified is how anything will be properly codified — through painstaking legal committee work by legislators and the judiciary, and over time through amendments after experience. It’s how all difficult laws are made, but they are made nonetheless.

      2. What do we do about all of the rap lyrics by black artists that LITERALLY tell blacks to kill white people? I can provide lyrics and links to songs (numerous) and produced by major labels (EMI, Sony, etc.). Should these albums be removed from circulation and destroyed? (similar to book burnings)

      — That’s for the courts to decide in criminal and civil suits, as it would be for all new laws that change the timbre of public expression. But to equate it with book burning is a bit of an overstatement of the case. There are plenty of books that have become un-books over the years, or adjusted to fit new and current sensitivities (e.g., “Little Black Sambo” becoming “Sam and the Tigers”), because times change. Anyway, if the materials advocate national, racial or religious hatred and constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, then yes, there will be measures taken to curtail.

      You wrote, “That’s why Japan decided to do something about it. In 2016 the Diet passed a law against hate speech (albeit limiting it to specifically protect foreign residents). And it has had an effect: Japanese media reports fewer rallies and softer invective.”

      3. Your verbiage tends make me believe we may be in agreement here. Is the hate speech law you would like to propose meant to apply to hate speech against all races, nationalities, etc.? Or would you intend this to be targeted towards blacks and other minorities only?

      — Hate speech against all races, nationalities, etc., obviously. Hate is not a majority/minority issue. Hate is hate. Hate can go both ways.

      You wrote, “But in 2016, it didn’t. Hate speech is precisely how Donald J. Trump got elected president.”

      4. First, I did not vote for Trump (nor did I vote for Clinton) and chose to write in another democratic candidate who was not on the ballot. I do not like Trump. However, I know quite a few people who voted for Trump and there were many who voted for him based on his thoughts on illegal immigration (i.e. the U.S. should do more to protect the borders) and his stance on unbalanced trade deals. These people were not racist and did not necessarily like his choice of words. Additionally, if the Democratic party would have put up nearly any other candidate I believe Trump would not have won. I agree with your comments about his tarnished past, etc.

      — But what really put 45 over the top was his ability to get people to switch off their logic circuits by encouraging them to hate — actually hate — Hillary Clinton. Agreed, the Dems made a huge mistake by rigging the DNC to shut out Sanders. But getting people to vote for someone who is looking after no-one’s interests but his own defies logic, and the only way I see 45 managed it was by clouding voters’ critical thinking skills with hatred. It’s nothing new. Look at history. Soldiers can be trained to kill through the process of dehumanization of an opponent, and whole societies can even commit genocide if somebody is made into their enemy. 45 managed that. That must not be allowed to happen again.

      You said, “For example, look at how Confederate monuments are tumbling down in the wake of Charlottesville. And how Trump’s ham-handed response has caused unprecedented bipartisan protest, with political allies and business leaders distancing and deserting.”

      5. I despise the “white nationalists” and agree slavery was disgusting, however I think the monuments should remain in place. This is the history of the U.S. and not all history is pleasant or necessarily good. Auschwitz still exists in Germany and is used to educate people. The monuments could be used to do the same.

      — Fine. Agree to disagree here. But I suggest looking at the history of why those monuments went up in the first place. It wasn’t a simple, straightforward drive to preserve history. There were also hateful racialized politics behind them.

      You said, “And there are the institutional safeguards: a strong media poring over every nook and cranny of Trump’s pockmarked past.”

      6. The 1st Amendment is exactly what allows these safeguards to exist. The Supreme Court has been well aware of this in past rulings and protection of free speech has been advocated by both conservative and liberal members of the court. Again, my fear is that outlawing certain types of speech will eventually expand, possibly to restrict criticism of the government. Dangerous stuff. I do not see this argument as sloganeering.

      — Fine. I called it sloganeering because it seemed to offer an oversimplified argument that things were a choice between hate speech and free speech. That’s a slogan. If you want to get into the difficulties of enforcement, that’s a different can of worms, and worthy of discussion. But to leap to the conclusion of legal untenability without going through the process of saying enough about why it’s untenable is resorting to slogans. I see better where you’re coming from now. It now becomes a matter of preserving definition and making sure that non-hateful non-inciting political speech remains protected. It is under the current ICCPR definitions.

      You stated, “JBC still argues that this is too little too late, for the damage has been done. Haters are no longer a marginalized fringe resorting to stunts like (unsuccessful) marches through Skokie, Illinois, in 1977. In this age of underground internet communication, anonymous trolling and doxxing, and unprecedented levels of anonymous harassment online, hate groups have organized to the point of taking over media, creating a fake reality and gaining real power. And they will outlast Trump.”

      7. I disagree; These people are highly marginalized as was demonstrated by the response against Trump after Charlottesville.

      — Marginalization and degree of public response are two different things. The public response to Skokie in 1977 was also very high. The difference is now, as I argue, their means of reaching more people and enforcing their hatred is very different from back then, warranting measures against it. You aren’t offering any counterargument to that above, which is why I’m asking you to quote and respond point by point. Please do so.

      You stated, “That’s why America needs to get on the same page as Japan (and our European brethren, after their historical experiences with authoritarianism and fascism) and outlaw the activities of those who would advocate violence, hate and intolerance towards other people. Deprive the haters of a mic.”

      8. In the United Kingdom, nearly any criticism of Islam is marked as hate speech, even some who are genuinely concerned about the conflict between Islam and liberal western values (i.e. equality of women, etc.). I find this problematic and in this case one person’s hate speech is another person’s legitimate concern.

      — See definition above. I disagree with you about legitimate concerns. People who hate and incite people to violence no longer have legitimate concerns, as they aren’t trying to preserve the calm of the arena for debate and communication. As I argued in my column.

      You stated, “Why? Because a lack of illegality means they automatically get a platform to disseminate their views. Haters take advantage of the media’s need for a sense of “balance” by getting “both sides of the story.””

      9. Are you arguing for a state controlled media? Would it be illegal for the media to invite certain guests to appear or report on the activities of certain groups?

      — Obviously I’m not arguing for a state-controlled media, so no Straw-Man Arguments, please. Please read what I wrote more closely and respond more thoughtfully.

      10. Your example about lynching is troublesome to me. I would hope (and do not think) you are not making an equivalence to speech and lynching. I see you are trying to make a point but I think we disagree on this one.

      — Again, you are not responding thoughtfully to the spirit of what’s written. I’m talking about a legal, social, and media dynamic. You’re just responding to claim I’m trying to equate lynching with hate speech. Enormous degree of difference, but same dynamic of how changing the law stopped the normalized hateful activity.

      You state, “Philosopher Karl Popper called it the “paradox of tolerance” — where if a society is tolerant without limit, the intolerant will eventually win and destroy the tolerant society.” Hence one must be intolerant of intolerance. For hatred in particular has the habit of making calm, rational debate in an arena more difficult, often impossible — especially since it appeals to the baser elements of human nature.

      11. I agree. I have issues with Islam, particularly with the treatment of women (I have a daughter). The religion is quite intolerant, yet we tolerate it and often those that criticize the religion are tainted as “haters”.

      You stated, “So now it’s time for America to get on the same page as Japan. Outlaw hate speech. Charlottesville has finally shown the true colors and intentions of the haters, and of the politicians in high office who encourage them.”

      12. Again, please define hate speech.

      — See above.

      It’s no longer time to wait for them to wind up on the wrong side of history. It’s time they got on the wrong side of the law.

      13. On this issue, I believe the U.S. is on the right side of history. Governments have restricted speech in the past and the results were disastrous. An obvious example is Hitler’s Germany, present day North Korea, Pol pot in Cambodia, etc. All regimes had strict restrictions on speech and the types of media the governed (subjects) could read and used these restrictions to control and intimidate the population.

      Yet plenty of other countries have laws against hate speech and the sky has not fallen on their liberal democracies. It can be done. Merely citing where it has not worked (and their societies fell for a lot more reasons than allegedly hate speech laws) prompts me to reflexively respond where it has worked. Not a very thoughtful debate.

      Examples of what some see as “hate speech”

      – Although not a supporter of Trump, I agree with the ban on transgender people in the military. This has more to do with the ability to be deployable and also possible of lack of cohesion within units (I have nothing against transgender people but see this as being an issue in the military). This is due to my experience having served in the military. Am I a hater because of this. Is what I said hate speech?

      – Black males represent around 6.5-7% of the nation’s population but commit more than 60% of violent crimes. These are statistics. These statistics should be openly discussed to determine the root cause of this problem. However, some believe that merely bringing up these statistics is hate speech. When I mention this statistic is this hate speech? These statistics are needed to get to the root cause of the issue (the historical issues related to racism)

      – Is calling a white person a “cracker” hate speech?

      — I am not going to engage in a whack-a-mole game of hypotheticals. Obviously here are a number of variables involved, as with all laws (particularly those governing things like, for example, libel and slander), that necessitate full consideration of the context, spirit of the language, intent of the speaker, feelings of the people targeted who have legal standing, etc. These will be decided by a judge properly, as is the purpose of the judiciary. But just arguing that it’s difficult to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution is to me not a reason to ignore the problem, which is haters gaining power in the media to foment violence and hatred, and the need to do something now that normal checks and balances against public expressions of hatred are proving insufficient and ineffectual in the Internet Age.

      In the end – I guess we just disagree on this issue. It is an interesting subject but I believe that regulating speech is dangerous and could lead us down the slippery slope.

      — Of course. It’s a contentious topic. Thank you very much for the point-by-point discussion. Debito

      Reply
  • Brooks Slaybaugh says:

    The issue is the 1st Amendment. Free speech, as we know.
    Violence must be unacceptable. Virginia police stood by. Why were people allowed to have weapons (on the left and the right)?

    — No, the issue is Hate Speech and what to do about it. Please stay on topic.

    Reply
  • I just noticed that Japan’s Hate Speech Act of 2016 applies only to a certain segment of non-Japanese and involves no penalties. So there seems to be little danger of self-serving political manipulation at this point. But I still think, given the depth of public apathy toward free speech and how little is done to address racial discrimination, that Japan should not serve as any kind of beacon of hope simply for having something resembling a hate speech law on the books.

    Reply
  • Edward J. Cunningham says:

    I have a great deal of respect for Debito and his human rights activism for NJ in Japan, but I respectfully and vehemently disagree with him that “hate speech” should be banned. Here is one of the better arguments why:

    Both Houses

    Reply
  • Jim Di Griz says:

    So, here in Japan with its hate-speech laws, we’ve got Aso (yet again!) praising Hitler and the holocaust!

    https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/08/30/national/politics-diplomacy/aso-makes-hitler-gaffe-time-apparently-defending-nazi-leaders-motive/

    Those hate-speech laws eh?

    — Right. They’re not working properly. But that’s not an argument for not having them. As I’ve said in the past, it’s but the first step — in acknowledging hate speech actually exists and taking some measures against it. The fact that some things fall through the cracks is an argument for a more effective hate speech law through amendment.

    Reply
  • The Washington Post writes a related editorial:

    Where to draw the line on hate speech online?
    A makeshift memorial to Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 13. (Steve Helber/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
    By Washington Post Editorial Board September 1, 2017

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/where-to-draw-the-line-on-hate-speech-online/2017/09/01/025eab10-89da-11e7-a50f-e0d4e6ec070a_story.html

    BEFORE THE death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, the Daily Stormer — a neo-Nazi website involved in organizing the white supremacist rally that led to her killing — was easy to find: all you had to do was type in the Web address. Now the site has all but vanished from the Internet. That’s due to the decision of a handful of Internet companies to reject the publication as a customer in the wake of Charlottesville — a reasonable choice that nevertheless raises difficult questions about limiting speech online.

    After the Daily Stormer published a post crowing over Ms. Heyer’s death, the company hosting the website and providing it with a domain name withdrew its services, booting the site offline. The website bounced from service to service as each rejected it in turn. Then, Cloudflare — a company that provides protection from cyberattacks — pulled the plug as well. Without Cloudflare’s support, hackers have knocked the website offline each time it’s tried to reemerge. Currently, the site exists only on a hidden corner of the “dark web,” off-limits to casual browsers.

    While Cloudflare didn’t block the website from the Internet per se, any site without the protections it offers is vulnerable to being kicked offline by vigilante hackers. And though users banned from social-media platforms can always migrate to a new service, the Web’s infrastructure is made up of a relatively small number of companies such as Cloudflare. The fewer alternatives there are for services such as domain name registration and cyberattack protection, the more ability each provider has to decide which websites should be online.

    As a space maintained by private enterprise, the Web is outside the scope of First Amendment protections. But freedom of expression has always been a key cultural, if not legal, value of the Internet — and that free flow of information has made the Web into a vibrant forum central to democratic life.

    Nevertheless, in recent years, the Internet has also begun to reckon with the danger posed by certain kinds of speech. Social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are working to limit harassment, calls to violence and disinformation across their platforms. Companies that make up the Web’s infrastructure now face the option of taking a similar approach.

    Businesses such as Cloudflare have no legal obligation to provide service to neo-Nazis. But the more power these companies have to determine unilaterally whose website gets to be online, the more carefully they should wield that power, weighing the value of free speech against its dangers. Developing clear, transparent standards for refusing a customer would be a valuable first step.

    The U.S. government should hold back from weighing in on the scope of those standards. Government regulation defining which websites may be removed from the Internet would risk legitimizing the repressive tactics of governments like those of China and Russia, which censor the Web in the name of preventing harm. In the absence of government action, Internet companies should take care to be honest and open about their decision-making. ENDS

    Reply

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