Gab and Free Speech on the Internet

Over the weekend, 11 people were killed and others wounded in a mass shooting in Pittsburgh. The suspect is now known to have used, a social network founded, in the words of its creator, as a "free speech alternatives" to other established sites like Facebook and Twitter.

On Gab, the Pittsburgh shooter ranted frequently about the evil of Jews, Trump's subservience to them, and other nonsense. Finally, he posted a message that the Synagogue of Life (the location attacked) was "bringing in invaders... to kill our people... I'm going in".

In the following days, lots of attention has turned to this website and its content. Payment processors and web hosting companies have terminated their services to Gab. The site is down, for now, as it searches for a new web hosting provider. It is unclear how it will take payments without the utility of sites like Paypal or Stripe, giants in the electronic payments industry.

I believe the final message the suspect posted, which is referenced in [1], is a threat of violence in the context of his post history and tone. It is unclear if Gab, even if willing, would have had the time or the automated tools to respond to such a threat. But let's look at the broader issue of the Internet as a platform for dissent and hate speech.

It should not be a controversial opinion that the Internet is a vital component of society and economy. It is as vital to advanced society as electricity and water. Many people, moreso on the "left" than right, believe Internet access to critical that open access to the entire Internet be protected by the government through mechanisms commonly branded "Net Neutrality": Internet Service Providers should not be able to filter access from users to any particular destination on the Internet. Period.

That idea protects users from ISP greed and censorship. What protects content providers' access to users, though? A common response to Gab's removal from the Internet is "Big deal. They peddle hate, and private companies shouldn't have to deal with them". That sounds reasonable at first glance, but it seems to falter when taken to the extreme.

Some say "Host your own content if others won't host it for you. Cloud providers shouldn't be forced to host anyone." And it's true: For small to medium sites, self-hosting, even at one's residence, is a low cost endeavour. With some technical knowledge, even an old laptop could host a blog or small news website and get 100k hits a day.

But how do people get to your site? Through the physical network known as the Internet. Users have an ISP, and so do websites. Should ATT, Level3, or Comcast be able to cut off someone's Internet, or prevent them from hosting a website, simply because it has objectionable content?

Should the "domain registrars", the companies that let "" be a helpful pointer to (an IP address) and a fundamental component of secure communication on the Net, be allowed to shut down that domain because of its content?

These two examples: ISP access and domain names, are two of several other, much more centralized components of the Internet that cannot be decentralized in the same manner as the hosting of content. Independent networks of computers are scalable to neighborhoods, maybe even cities. That would cost tens of thousands of dollars to build, with the coordination of dozens of people and groups; and only to reach the people within that private network. For domain names, the "phone book" of the Internet, building your own is physically possible, but only useful if everyone else knows to use your copy. This is similarly impossible at scale.

In other words, there is no "free market" for new ISPs and new Internets, nor for new Domain Name Systems. If it is argued that these two pieces of infrastructure are not guaranteed to anyone, regardless of the abhorrence of their beliefs and content, then it cannot be argued that access to the Internet is critical to Constitutionally protected speech in America.


  1. On Gab, an Extremist-Friendly Site, Pittsburgh Shooting Suspect Aired His Hatred in Full


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