This week, too, the Daily Stormer, a long-running neo-Nazi site, got cut off from its original hosting and went to Google, who also cut off the site.
Looking at this news in isolation, you might say: Google has become a right-wing target because it is a liberal institution. Certainly, it has not gone unnoticed on the right that Googlers overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton, both financially and operationally. And more generally, the Bay Area technology industry has become a key base of support for Democratic candidates.
But the ideology underpinning Silicon Valley does not fall on a strict left/right spectrum. For many years, scholars who study the internet’s dynamics have been saying that the public sphere—the place where civic society is supposed to play out, the place “free speech” advocates desire to see preserved—has been privatized by Facebook, Google, and the other big internet companies. Most on the left saw this privatization as part of a larger conservative (or—GASP—neoliberal) movement that was sapping the strength of the government-secured commons.
Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at Princeton University, made this connection in 2010. “This is about the fact that increasing portions of our sociality are now conducted in privately owned spaces. The implications of this are still playing out,” she wrote.
She cited a litany of examples running long before Google and Facebook: the outsourcing of key government functions to private contractors, the “dominance of corporate-owned media over the civic public sphere,” and the replacement of public parks with malls and “privately owned town squares.”
By moving our speech online, we entered a mall, where Facebook or Twitter or Google control the rules, not the U.S. government. Companies have different imperatives, the first of which is—for these companies, above all—to make money on advertising. By and large, this has led to a maximally permissive informational environment. On the occasions they have intervened to censor nipples or ban particular kinds of sites, their response has been: Hey, it’s a free market and you can always post photos to your LiveJournal, search with Bing, and chat on Gab.
These attitudes are why sometimes people describe Silicon Valley as “libertarian.” But most Silicon Valley people are wealthy Democrats who support progressive social causes, but do not want entrepreneurship and business restrained by the government (too much). They are the classic “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” people who the left (dirtbag and otherwise) loves to pillory.
Take the Los Angeles–based web host and domain-name registrar DreamHost, for example. On the one hand, they are fighting the Department of Justice, which has requested details on 1.3 million visitors to an anti-Trump website. “That information could be used to identify any individuals who used this site to exercise and express political speech protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment,” the company wrote on its blog. On the other, they are part of the cloud infrastructure of neo-Nazi groups like the American Nazi Party.