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Could the alt-right build its own ‘safe space’ on the Internet?

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As social networks crack down on hate speech, extremists are setting up camp on their own platforms. With the expulsion of the Daily Stormer and Gab by their domain registrars, however, some sympathisers are proposing the creation of dedicated far-right Internet infrastructure: a safe space where users answer to no one.

“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,” announced Robert Bowers to his online followers, before bursting into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, and murdering 11 worshippers. Once Bowers had been identified, it did not take long for the media to unearth his online life on Gab: a largely unknown social network with a policy of absolute free speech, a population of predominantly ‘alt-right’ [extreme right-wing] users and branded with a frog mascot called Gabby.

Bowers’ Gab profile was plastered with explicit anti-Semitic and white supremacist material - nothing out of the ordinary for this social network. By the time the rest of the world had heard of Gab, it had seemingly vanished from the Internet. Having previously been kicked off Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store (twice), it had finally been given the boot by domain registrar GoDaddy, as well as by payment providers PayPal and Stripe and publishing platform Medium. All that was left of the web site was a note claiming that it had been “systematically no-platformed” and that it would transition to a new hosting provider.

Gab’s scrabble to stay online following its rejection by mainstream service providers raises questions about the viability of maintaining online ‘safe spaces’ for extremist ideologues.

Most Internet users would testify that – despite ongoing detoxification efforts – there is plenty of hateful content already on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Youtube and other mainstream web sites. The alt-right tends to use these mainstream platforms to raise their visibility, often creating temporary accounts to rally around a specific cause, before they are inevitably banned and begin the process again. Meanwhile, they rely on closed groups to build communities and organise themselves.

Some lurk on independently moderated areas of mainstream web sites, such as the r/the_donald Subreddit, while others use web sites designed as safe spaces for the alt-right. Under the sometimes-euphemistic banner of absolute free speech, these web sites provide playgrounds in which users need not be concerned with the usual restrictions around hate speech. Among the most famous are Voat (similar to Reddit, but more racist), BitChute (similar to YouTube, but more racist) and Gab (similar to Twitter, but more racist).

“Gab came out of this idea from Andrew Torba [who founded the platform in 2016] that there was some sort liberal conspiracy to censor content online. He basically made that proclamation at the same time that we started to see major social media companies start to ban people for violating terms of service,” said Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which specialises in tracking far-right extremism online. “In my view, Gab was basically meant as a harbour for those people from the start. [Torba] knew exactly the type of person who was coming onto the platform.”

As expected, Gab attracted the alt-right leaders who were too unsavoury for mainstream social media. Their devotees duly followed. A recent study found that Gab’s top contributors included Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos, the Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin, and Mike Cernovich and Alex Jones of InfoWars (the latter banned from so many other social networks that he was reduced to bawling into the Google+ void).

Gab was among the more successful of the dedicated alt-right platforms; among other factors, Torba had wisely chosen to raise funds by selling premium memberships, meaning that Gab was not dependent on the support of advertisers. Hankes believes that many similar ‘free speech’ platforms emerged amid a crackdown on hate speech following the murder of a counter-protestor at a violent white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, in May 2017.

“After Charlottesville, we saw so many of these groups get thrown off different services, particularly fundraising sites. Then we saw a rush of [new] sites go up to basically provide fundraising; for instance, Charles C. Johnson’s WeSearchr and FreeStartr,” said Hankes. “One by one, these all failed because each one of these, quote-unquote, ‘fundraising platforms’ still relied on mainstream infrastructure. Whether you were using Stripe to process credit cards or PayPal to process donations, you were still relying on those to process transactions.”

Despite previous resilience to warnings and some removals from useful service providers, Gab’s association with the Pittsburgh massacre quickly led to its abandonment by GoDaddy and other service providers, sending it down the same path as other failed alt-right sites.

In order to bolster their platforms against these types of take-downs, some groups – not just those aligned with the far-right – have proposed the establishment of an entirely independent Internet infrastructure in which content would not be subject to terms of service anywhere in the web content distribution chain: essentially an ultra-libertarian Internet.

The “Alt Tech” concept was described in a manifesto by Pax Dickinson, founder of far-right fundraising web site Counter.Fund. Dickinson’s manifesto claimed that “Big Tech has politicised the provision of its services” and proposed a decentralised, virtual industry with its own ICANN-accredited domain registrar, as well as its own DNS service, web hosting, DDOS protection and payment processing services. Torba has similarly spoken of a “decentralised […] people-powered Internet infrastructure”, while a fellow Gab executive expressed interest in founding or joining a domain registrar focused on absolute free speech. In August 2017, Gab published its proposal for a “Free Speech Tech Alliance”, calling for supporters with the funds and technical skills required to build this alternative Internet infrastructure.

There are many decentralised web infrastructures already in existence – such as social network diaspora* and communications platform Hubzilla – and enthusiasm for a decentralised web exists across the political spectrum, particularly as disillusionment grows with the powerful and scandal-prone tech giants. Building and maintaining decentralised infrastructures is no piece of cake, however, and could be more trouble than it is worth for the attention-seeking alt-right.

“The challenges [the alt-right] would face are twofold: reliability of the infrastructure […] and monetisation,” said Dr Emiliano de Cristofaro, a UCL-based information security researcher, who has also studied far-right online communities. “Using decentralised web applications requires above average technical skills, creating further challenges for smartphone apps etc, so in the end I believe it would significantly reduce their user-base potential.”

Perhaps most crucial to the establishment of a safe space for the alt-right is a domain registrar controlled by sympathetic parties. Domain registrars have the authority to set out guidelines for domain name use and it was the violation of these terms that left Gab (and previously the Daily Stormer) out in the cold. Dickinson expressed concern about attempts to gain ICANN registration being sabotaged by “ICANN accreditation gamesmanship”, suggesting it would be preferable to acquire an existing accredited domain registrar. In a statement to E&T, ICANN confirmed that it “does not review or evaluate the type of content that may be offered by the registrar” during the accreditation process.

ICANN does, however, require domain registrars to demonstrate that they have the necessary technical, operational and financial resources. Meeting these criteria could prove almost impossible for the alt-right, thanks to the rejection of its dedicated fundraising platforms by payment processing services and the unwillingness of most technically proficient people to risk their reputations with their involvement, even if they were quietly sympathetic to the cause.

It is this stigma associated with the alt-right (or to be more explicit, with white supremacy, violent misogyny, conspiracy theories, Neo-Fascism and Neo-Nazism) that holds back the creation of an alt-right Internet and which holds these platforms accountable when users commit real-world violence.

For now at least, the establishment of decentralised, anything-goes Internet infrastructure is unnecessary for the alt-right. Having been rejected by GoDaddy and Google for mocking Charlottesville murder victim Heather Heyer, the Neo-Nazi Daily Stormer spent a brief stint on the dark web while it searched for a new domain name, but within weeks it was back with a .name domain and healthy search engine rankings. According to Hankes, it is “relatively rare” for service providers to intervene like this, with most refusing to interfere with the content posted by their users.

This hands-off approach is supported not just by alt-right figureheads but also some civil liberties groups, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). In a statement to E&T, EFF commented: “We believe that no one – not the government and not private commercial enterprises – should decide who gets to speak online and who doesn’t. Any tactic used now to silence objectionable content will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with. People in marginalised communities who are targets of persecution and violence – from the Rohingya in Burma to Native Americans in North Dakota – are using social media to tell their stories, but finding that their voices are being silenced online by flawed content moderation policies.”

Some groups – particularly the privileged, Internet-savvy far-right – are in a better position to bounce back from being silenced online than others. Gab and similar platforms will continue to do so by any means necessary - and given the ease with which new domain names are found, it would take an unprecedented crackdown before they are forced to build their own Internet. If that time comes, we must hope that their extreme ideology has not been normalised to the point that individuals and companies are unashamed to support them.

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