The Dirty Business Of Hosting Hate Online

Illustration: Jim Cooke (Gizmodo)

Sometime in the three years before he murdered nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Dylan Roof sat down at his computer and typed “black on White crime” into Google. According to Roof’s online manifesto, something about the death of Trayvon Martin sparked his curiosity. Roof knew George Zimmerman, who killed Martin, was the real victim, but he wanted statistics to prove what he felt in his gut.

“The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens,” Roof wrote. “There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realised that something was very wrong.”

Roof pointed to his discovery of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens website as the beginning of his journey into radicalisation. Its end was a massacre he hoped would spark a race war with millions of white Americans following in his bloody footsteps.

In the weeks leading up to the church attack, the site that inspired Roof featured story after story portraying blacks as uniquely dangerous threats—a “racial spree shooting in Texas,” dozens killed in a single weekend in Chicago, and Jay-Z allegedly “funding violent protests in Baltimore and Ferguson.”

Four years later, the Council of Conservative Citizens’ website is still online, pumping out stories about “black serial murderers.” Those pieces are now slotted between odes to nationalist politicians like Nigel Farage, advertisements for a white supremacist conference at a Tennessee state park, and a widget tracking the progress of a crowdfunding campaign to help build Donald Trump’s border wall.

All of that content is still out there, waiting to be found by the next Dylan Roof. But the people behind the site aren’t able to spread their message without some help: The group’s website is hosted by a Michigan-based company called Liquid Web and registered by web infrastructure giant GoDaddy, a publicly traded company currently valued at over $17 billion.

America is a country without hate speech laws, one built on the premise that it’s not the government’s job to decide what types of speech should be prohibited. In the internet era, that sort of governance is largely left up to the private companies responsible for the technology powering all our digital communications. As spectacular incidents of hate-based violence draw headlines and the web is flooded with extremist content, there’s been an increasing public pressure for companies to take that responsibility more seriously.

While social media giants have received the brunt of the attention for providing a platform to hate groups, firms that enable more basic kinds of services to these deeply controversial groups appear to have largely abdicated that responsibility—or rejected the notion that refusing to do business with certain groups is the right thing to do.

The Council of Conservative Citizens site is just one of the 391 websites we ran through web-based tools to determine which tech companies are providing services to groups like it.

We reached out to a handful of non-profit organisations that work to monitor and counter hate - the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, Hope Not Hate, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, and the Counter Extremism Project. They each provided us a list of groups they see as being involved in the propagation of hate. To this list we added some other sites operated by groups connected to by the sites provided by these nonprofits, which we then verified with the groups that provided the initial list.

The organisations we looked at run the gamut from white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and chapters of the Ku Klux Klan to groups dedicated to stripping the rights of immigrants and LGBT people. There are also some neo-Confederates, black nationalists and racist Odinists in the mix as well. The list includes one website for a white nationalist beer company and a whites-only dating site.

Using this list, we found 151 tech companies currently offering hosting, DNS registration, or content delivery network services to the websites on this list. While the overwhelming majority of companies only worked with one or two sites, some names came up again and again.

GoDaddy and its subsidiary Wild West Domains provided services to the largest number of sites on our list, 130. Cloudflare, which provides protection against distributed denial-of-service attacks, works with the second largest number of sites, 56. They are followed by Tucows (and its subsidiary eNom) with 46 and the companies comprising Endurance International Group with 42.

While the aforementioned companies play major roles in the online ecosystem, most are relatively obscure to the general public. However, there were some big names we found working with sites on our list. Google provided services to 27 sites, Amazon works with nine, and Microsoft works with five.

We reached out to all of the technology companies mentioned by name in this story. Most either did not respond or gave brief statements that they were looking at the sites we highlighted but declined to go into depth about their policies or their relationships with specific sites. Of all the sites we inquired about, only 29 were either taken down by their hosts, became inaccessible, or deleted all of their content since we reached out to the technology providers in early June.

The only company to take systematic action was Automattic, which runs the Wordpress platform. Automattic terminated the pages of 17 of the 24 pages Gizmodo inquired about, including eight pages operated by chapters of the neo-Confederate group League of the South. Two League of the South pages we asked about were allowed to continue operating on Wordpress, as of July 11.

Aside from a few individual exceptions, it does not appear any other company we contacted took significant action. Some companies gave broad, formulaic responses about how they work to comply with local laws, but insist, like French hosting company OVH, which works with nine sites, that “cloud infrastructure providers cannot be arbiters of morality,” as the company wrote in an email to Gizmodo.

OVH hosts the websites of a chapter of the KKK that features a picture of the incineration of the Jewish star on its homepage as well as a racist far right German political party whose members shouted “Heil Hitler” and threw bottles at police during a protest in 2015.

GoDaddy did not sever its relationship with any of the 130 sites we inquired about.

“GoDaddy does not condone content that advocates expressions of hate, racism, bigotry,” a GoDaddy representative wrote in an emailed statement. “We generally do not take action on complaints that would constitute censorship of content and limit the exercise of freedom of speech and expression on the Internet. While we detest the sentiment of such sites, we support a free and open Internet and, similar to the principles of free speech, that sometimes means allowing such tasteless, ignorant content.”

GoDaddy is the registrar for two websites serving as fronts for the neo-Nazi music network Blood & Honour. Blood & Honour was founded by lead singer of the British white supremacist metal band Skrewdriver, whose members reportedly advocated for the same sort of violent race war Roof’s massacre was intended to ignite. The group’s penchant for violence goes beyond simply racial animus.

In 2011, two Blood & Honor members were sentenced to life in prison for murdering a pair of homeless people in Florida because they, according to law enforcement officials, “considered the homeless to be an inferior class, regardless of race.”

A spokesperson for DreamHost, which worked with 23 sites on our list, broadly defended the company’s decision to stay relatively hands-off when it comes to the content it hosts, stating, “when private companies that control internet traffic begin to weigh in on questions of content, then the very fabric of what we know the internet to be, and how it can be expected to function, is placed at risk.”

However, in the weeks since we reached out to DreamHost about its relationship with the website of the National Alliance for Reform and Restoration Group, the hate group’s page has been taken offline. The National Alliance for Reform and Restoration Group, among the most extreme and dangerous groups we encountered, has explicitly advocated for genocide against all non-whites in the United States since its founding in 1970.

In the years since, several group members have been responsible for over a dozen acts of violence - including failed bombing attempts at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Washington, and along the highway leading to Walt Disney World.

The Turner Diaries, a book written by the group’s founder, may have inspired over 200 murders since its publication, author and International Centre for Counter-Terrorism associate fellow J.M. Berger estimates, including those carried out by Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh. When three white men in Jasper, Texas, murdered a disabled African American man by dragging him from the bumper of their car, one of them told police after the attack that they were “starting The Turner Diaries early.”

Google hosts three sites for the neo-Nazi terrorist organisation Combat 18, famous for a series of nail bomb attacks targeting predominantly non-white neighbourhoods of the UK..

Google also hosts the website for the white nationalist podcast network Radio Aryan. One of the hosts on the network goes by the handle Grandpa Lampshade, a reference to likely apocryphal stories about how Nazi made lampshades from the skin of Jews who died in concentration camps. Shortly before murdering 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, according to police, Robert Bowers shared an anti-Semetic post by Grandpa Lampshade on the alt-right social network Gab.

As HuffPost noted in an article that revealed his true identity, Lampshade said in a podcast in the weeks before the shooting that the “answer” to demographic change in America may “involve a whole lotta killin’.” Representatives from Google did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Network Solutions, which is the registrar for 38 sites on our list, provides services to the website of the National Socialist Movement, which the SPLC calls “one of the largest and most prominent neo-Nazi groups in the United States.”

While a statement of principles on the group’s website currently tries to project a kinder, gentler face of national socialism (with calls for universal healthcare and self-rule for Native American territories), an earlier version of the document from 2007 tilted more toward advocating genocide. “All non-White immigration must be prevented,” it read. “We demand that all non-Whites currently residing in America be required to leave the nation forthwith and return to their land of origin: peacefully or by force.”

Taylor Michael Wilson had a Nationalist Socialist Movement business card in his possession when he attempted to hijack an Amtrak train travelling through Nebraska last year. Following the attack, Wilson said he has committed the hijacking “to save the train from black people.”

Court documents from Wilson’s trial show that Wilson’s cousin told investigators that Wilson had “joined an ‘alt right’ Neo-Nazi group that he … had found researching white supremacy forums online.”

HostGator, part of the Endurance International Group, hosts the website of the neo-Nazi Vanguard Streaming Network, which has daily podcasts featuring content like interviews with white supremacist politician Paul Nehlen, an online store where visitors can support the operation by buying neo-Nazi merch (like a shirt with a stylied picture of American Nazi Party founder Geroge Lincoln Rockwell or one featuring an alt-right clown meme), and an article entitled “3 Firearms Every White Man Should Own.”

Sometimes these companies work with organisations that, while dramatically more mainstream than unrepentant neo-Nazis, still advocate viewpoints diametrically opposed to their professed corporate values.

Microsoft hosts the website for Alliance Defending Freedom, likely the most influential anti-LGBT legal advocacy group in the country. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys represented the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple and pushed rules to deliberately expose LGBT people to intentional discrimination in dozens of other states.

It fought against the decriminalization of gay sex in Texas and has supported efforts to make gay sex punishable with prison time in Jamaica and Belize.

The group published a memo supporting Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, which prohibited providing access to information about LGBT issues to young people. The law has had the effect of shutting down websites that provide information to LGBT youth and, according to a Human Rights Watch report, stopped mental health professionals in the country from directly addressing LGBT issues with their patients.

At the same time, Microsoft positions itself as a corporate leader in pushing for LGBT rights. A 2018 company blog post reads, “Microsoft has a history of supporting and advocating for LGBTQ+ rights: In 1993, it became the first Fortune 500 company to provide same-sex domestic partnership benefits, and it was also one of the first companies to include sexual orientation in its corporate non-discrimination policy.”

Microsoft is even pushing international efforts to promote marriage equality around the globe, like in Taiwan, yet the company is providing hosting services to an organisation that is a primary institutional force fighting against those very efforts.

A Microsoft spokesperson told Gizmodo in an email that its cloud platform, Azure, is “general purpose” and meant to allow “customers to build and run their own cloud services.”

“We believe this core technology should be available broadly and not based on whether a customer’s views align with our own,” the spokesperson said, adding that the responsibility for content on customers websites is on those customers, not Microsoft.

But Microsoft’s stance was less hands-off than some other firms. The company explained that it would, for example, “reserve the right to suspend or terminate the customer’s use of Azure” if that customer failed to remove content from their site that breaks the law or threatens the safety of others.

Technical relationships between these companies can complicate questions about responsibility. For example, MarkMonitor was technically the registrar for 24 sites on the list. However, all of those sites were hosted on either Google’s Blogspot platform or Automattic’s Wordpress platform. A MarkMonitor spokesperson insisted that because its relationships are with those platforms directly, the company’s only option would be cutting off registration service to the entire Wordpress or Blogspot network, thereby taking millions of sites effectively offline, at least until those platforms found a new registrar.

Most of the companies we reached out to declined to seriously engage with our inquiries, or ignored them completely. A rare exception, Cloudflare’s leadership was excited to engage in the conversation. Cloudflare General Counsel Doug Kramer made the argument that his company, which provides technical protection against denial-of-service attacks, deliberately makes an effort to avoid having to be in the business of judging the moral worth of its clients.

“It’s not that we think doing business with these groups is important for the health of the internet as part of some free expression principle,” Kramer said. “Instead, we think that us taking on the role becoming one of the censors of the internet is bad because we don’t think we would do it well. It would distract us from the virtuous things we are able to do, like keeping the internet secure.”

“It’s easy to point at sites you don’t like and make a single decision,” Kramer added. “But to come up with a consistent policy you can apply to the 16 million websites that use us for various services in a predictable and consistent way is very difficult.”

Cloudflare has put itself in that situation in the past. Amid a flurry of public pressure following the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Cloudflare cut off service to the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer, temporarily reversing its previous policy of content neutrality.

In an email to employees, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince expressed ambivalence about giving the Daily Stormer the boot. “Having made that decision we now need to talk about why it is so dangerous,” he noted. “Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.”

One complication, Cloudflare found, was that after kicking off the Daily Stormer, the company got a flood of complaints about the services it was providing to Black Lives Matter sites and the pages of small religious organisations caught in factional disputes. Having made that decision once, the company was being asked to make it over and over again.

Instead of being deliberate about whose business they take, Cloudflare pivoted to providing free services to organisations fighting hate—like Bedayaa, which advocates for LGBTQI rights in Egypt and Sudan. Good speech, the company hopes, will win the day over bad speech without the need for corporate censorship.

Cloudflare insists it is not up to the task of deciding whether it’s acceptable to take the money of Stormfont, a white supremacist bulletin board whose users have been responsible for nearly 100 murders, according to SPLC, or Vanguard News Network forum, a site where the man who killed three people during a 2014 shooting spree at a pair of Kansas Jewish community centres posted over 12,000 times. Vanguard’s motto: “No Jews. Just Right.”

“There are a lot of people who care about freedom of speech and don’t want these companies themselves to be making all the decisions [about what websites are online],” said Oren Segal, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “They’re erring on the side of allowing any extremists to recruit and radicalize because somehow that’s safer than taking some corporate responsibility and curating what’s on their platforms. I think that’s a problem.”

Segal agreed tech companies often do a bad job of determining what is truly extremist content and what isn’t.

When social media companies like Facebook and YouTube, for example, are faced with deplatforming campaigns aimed at vulnerable minority groups, they end up making mistakes over and over again, further marginalising already marginalised voices in the process.

However, Segal insists, that difficulty doesn’t let these companies off the hook for the business direct relationship they have with extremists, a relationship that just so happens to benefit their bottom line—both in terms of earning revenue from these sites’ business in the form of advertising and from not having to expend resources to proactively go out and look for hate groups propagandising on their platforms.

“There are plenty of organisations, including the Anti-Defamation League, that can provide information and definitions and perspective on these groups and their activities so they can make more informed decisions,” he said. “They don’t have to be naturally good at these things, but there is a not unreasonable expectation, that they learn what they need to know to create safer products and to have some corporate responsibility. Ignorance only goes so far in this argument.”

In Segal’s experience, payment processors, like PayPal and Patreon, and social networking companies, like Facebook and Twitter, have been significantly more willing to engage with organisations like the ADL for help in going after organised hate groups on their platforms than hosting and registration infrastructure companies have been. But that’s largely because social networks have become the center of the action.

This online ecosystem is currently in the period of flux. In a previous era of the internet, organised hate groups, and their stand-alone web properties, were the key players. Social media platforms gobbling up much of the rest of the internet has triggered a fundamental shift. “The far right is post-organisational now,” explained Nick Ryan of the UK-based anti-racism advocacy group Hope Not Hate. “Most people engaging with extreme right ideologies, memes, views are doing so online and often not part of a formal network, organisation or political movement.”

Stand-alone hate group websites have declined in prominence as unaffiliated social media users sharing racist memes have drawn the public’s attention. That shift, according to Segal, allowed companies providing services to those sites to slip under the radar, while those sites still play an important role in spreading hate.

Some of these sites also distribute extremist and white supremacist podcasts, which experts believe have become increasingly influential. “It seems like there is a new one every day,” Segal said. “Many of these are housed on websites, since they’ve mostly been kicked off of mainstream podcast platforms.”

The Anti-Defamation League provided a list of six of the most influential white nationalist podcasts on the internet and the websites from which they are distributed or otherwise do business with Google, GoDaddy, Endurance International Group, Corporate Colocation Inc., Veesp, Public Domain Registry, Cloudflare, Justhost.ru, DNC Holdings, OVH, Internet Domain Service BS Corp, Squarespace, and Epik.

These podcasts, while playing a significant role in the white nationalist ecosystem, generally escape wider public notice. Before being contacted by Gizmodo, a spokesperson for Veesp, a company with servers located in St. Petersburg, Russia, said they had never received any communications from the public about its relationship with The Right Stuff, a white supremacist podcasting network. In an email, a Veesp representative said the company follows the hate speech laws set under the Russian Federation but scoffed at the idea that a company should take any moral responsibility for the business relationships it has with extremist groups.

In a 2016 episode of a podcast on the network, the hosts insisted that an ethnic cleansing to remove non-whites from the United States was their ultimate goal.

Brad Galloway is a former white nationalist who left the movement, which he now combats from the outside through his work with the Organisation for the Prevention of Violence. Having spent years using the internet to recruit people into his hate group, Galloway knows full well how deplatforming can be a double-edged sword.

“I believe they’ll try to operationalize any kind of content and websites still play a huge role in how they’re doing things,” Galloway said. “But it’s a bit like whack-a-mole. When you look at a site like the Daily Stormer, how many times did it get whacked, go away, and just reemerge somewhere else?”

If one web hosting company decides to kick a website off its platform, the group behind the site can easily find another company that doesn’t know, or care, what they’re up to. Switching to a different registrar is even easier. Unless a site is actively undergoing a DDoS attack, most of Cloudflare’s services are immaterial to whether a site’s content is accessible.

From the perspective of a company providing web infrastructure services to an organisation on this list, not proactively policing their platform makes a lot of sense. Doing the necessary work requires resources and the overall societal benefit is small if a hate group could get back online within a relatively short period of time. As an added benefit, they also get to continue taking neo-Nazis’ money, which is, at the end of the day, still money.

“When we look at it on a one-off basis, [deplatforming a single site] seems useless and not that practical. But what’s the other option, to just do nothing? There’s a collective effort that needs to be done here,” said Segal.

Segal urges the entire industry to start actively making the moral decision of whether they’re going to take the money of a hate group in exchange for giving that group a platform or they’re not.

Those decisions, made one at a time, by hundreds of different companies, can slowly shift the boundaries of what’s generally acceptable online. Should every tech company on the planet immediately decide to cut off every single group put on some list by an extremism-monitoring nonprofit? No, of course not.

But one step in a positive direction would be working with some of these organisations to police their platforms proactively and, on a case-by-case basis, make the concrete and public decision about if they want to take the money of a neo-Nazi group or not. If they want to take the money of an anti-LGBT group or not. If they want to take the money of a white nationalist dating site exclusively for white people or not.

Right now, as hundreds of sites on our list show, that conversation only seems to be triggered when the media spotlight shines on a particular company’s relationship with a particular site. Even then, it’s usually only after an act of senseless violence.

“To just sort of throw your hands in the air because of the volume, I just don’t think that’s an acceptable answer anymore,” said Segal. “The people who run these platforms have to make decisions about the greater good—whether they want to or not.”

Aaron Sankin is a reporter covering technology. He lives in Hong Kong.

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