GoDaddy’s Selective Outrage
Internet and social media companies never fail to take public bows when they remove harmful extremist content. However, all too often action only occurs in response to scandal, public outrage or bad publicity. Even when the content in question clearly violates a company’s own rules, the tech industry’s (very public and self-promotional) displays of action are disturbingly selective.
Take the web hosting company GoDaddy, based in Scottsdale, Arizona. In August 2017, The New Agenda’s Amy Siskind publicly called out GoDaddy for hosting the Daily Stormer (dailystormer.com), a white supremacist website that posted a hateful article against Heather Meyer, who was killed at a Charlottesville counter-protest at the Unite the Right Rally. Siskind’s tweet about GoDaddy quickly went viral, garnering nearly 11,000 retweets. In response to the public indignation, the company announced that it had given the Daily Stormer 24 hours to find another web host. In May 2018, after a similar public outcry, GoDaddy removed white nationalist Richard Spencer’s altright.com. GoDaddy explained, “altright.com crossed the line and encouraged and promoted violence in a direct and threatening manner.”
Left unanswered is this question: absent public pressure, would GoDaddy have ever stopped providing its services to websites which regularly violated the company’s terms of service?
Its lack of action on other websites suggests not. GoDaddy did not ban Gab, the site on which the alleged Pittsburgh gunman spread his anti-Semitic views, until after 11 innocent lives were lost. And, in October 2016, the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) flagged to GoDaddy a website it was hosting that belonged to Kat’aib Hizbollah (KH), a U.S.-designated Shiite militia operating in Iraq. GoDaddy’s response was that they were “working with relevant terrorism law enforcement to identify best course of action,” and that “sometimes it is best to leave the content up for intel purposes.” Two years later, the same KH website was flagged to GoDaddy again by CEP for still being active, as was another from the notoriously violent neo-Nazi group, the Hammerskins. GoDaddy again refused to take down these websites, stating, “the most appropriate course of action may be to leave the website up to enable appropriate authorities to collect potentially valuable intelligence.” GoDaddy also supports Authentic Tauheed, the website of Sheikh Abdullah Faisal, the Islamist pro-ISIS propagandist wanted in the United States on terrorism charges.
GoDaddy continues to provide its services to all these websites. In all cases, there was no public outcry or social media pressure heaped upon GoDaddy for willfully and knowingly providing web hosting services to extremist groups. Perhaps that’s why GoDaddy has so far declined to take any action accompanied by the inevitable chest-thumping PR announcement about its virtuous removal of these sites — despite the clear violations of its terms of service.
GoDaddy clearly states its prohibition of any group that “promotes, encourages or engages in terrorism, violence against people, animals, or property.” Surely, an Iranian-sponsored, anti-American Shiite militia that killed U.S. soldiers with roadside bombs and that has been designated by the U.S. government qualifies as a violation. It’s also apparent by the record of Hammerskins’ racially-motivated violence that the group has “crossed the line” and “encourages and promotes violence in a direct and threatening manner.” In August 2012, Hammerskin Wade Michael Page killed six people in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. In March 1999, Hammerskins viciously attacked a 23-year old black man. In December 1991, Hammerskin Louis Oddo beat to death a 50-year old black man. Faisal is a Specially Designated Global Terrorist who has incited several Islamist terrorists to commit atrocities, including Germaine Lindsay, one of the perpetrators of the July 2005 London underground bombings that killed 52 people.
Despite these horrendous crimes, KH, Hammerskin and Authentic Tauheed sites are still alive and active with GoDaddy’s help. It’s hard to ignore the inconsistencies this presents and even harder to accept blaming inaction on law enforcement sensitivities when GoDaddy was so quick to act in the past in the face of public outcry. There are ways for law enforcement to monitor these groups without providing them a platform to grow and inspire violence. Also, as the Daily Stormer did after it was removed, these websites could easily seek a new home from any of the more than one thousand other registrars, including non-U.S. providers.
The best course of action is clear: upon any violation of a company’s terms of service, a website should be taken down. In the same way other Internet giants are expected to be held accountable for content moderation and preventing the dissemination of radicalizing extremist and terrorist content online, the same should apply in this case. If GoDaddy wants to be seen as committed to operating by its strict set of principles, it should do so consistently, and not only when public pressure and social media traffic presents a public relations problem.