Should web-hosting companies restrict who's on their platforms?

Trump criticizes black CEO by name. No mention of white supremacists
Trump criticizes black CEO by name. No mention of white supremacists

White supremacist and neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer is having a hard time finding a place on the web.

Internet-domain provider GoDaddy gave The Daily Stormer the boot after the site published a derogatory story about a 32-year-old woman killed at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend.

Earlier on Monday, Google Domains became the registrar for the site. However, Google later said in a statement it's canceling The Daily Stormer's registration for violating its terms of service.

This game of internet-domain whack-a-mole raises issues around what domain-hosting companies are responsible for, and where they draw the line on objectionable material.

"Legally, they don't have any responsibility around this, unless it's a federal crime [such as child pornography] or intellectual property," Daphne Keller, the director of intermediary liability at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, told CNN Tech.

However, as a private business, website-hosting companies have the right to decide with whom they conduct business, and GoDaddy's decision does not violate the First Amendment, according to experts.

The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and expression from government censorship and government punishment. But private organizations and companies can censor speech in their offices and on their platforms, said Lata Nott, the executive director at the Newseum Institute's First Amendment Center.

"If GoDaddy doesn't want to host a certain site on its platform, that's within their rights," she said.

Related: Europe says Twitter is failing to remove hate speech

In general, GoDaddy says it doesn't condone content that advocates expressions of hate, racism and bigotry. But the company usually doesn't take action on complaints that are considered censorship of content or those representing 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," a GoDaddy spokeswoman told CNN Tech.

In this case, GoDaddy said The Daily Stormer crossed the line and "encouraged and promoted violence."

"In instances where a site goes beyond the mere exercise of these freedoms, however, and crosses over to promoting, encouraging, or otherwise engaging in violence against any person, we will take action," the spokeswoman said.

The company did not immediately respond to a question about how it determines what content encourages and promotes violence.

Related: Facebook, Twitter face fines up to $53 million over hate speech

Roy Gutterman, director at the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, said he understands why GoDaddy doesn't want to associate its platform with neo-Nazis, but their move will just push the group to another platform or "back underground."

"Kicking the Nazis off will not make them go away, but not everybody wants to associate themselves with these types of speakers, even though these speakers have a right to express themselves," Gutterman said.

Other companies aren't making restrictions about who can be on their platform.

DreamHost, another web hosting provider and domain name registrar, said it will host any website as long as its content is legal in the U.S.

"As stalwart supporters of the Constitution's First Amendment, we believe that hosting providers should not be in the business of dictating acceptable content among its users," a DreamHost spokesman told CNN Tech.

"We are a resource for publishers of all backgrounds, not a clearinghouse for thoughts and opinions (however distasteful some of them may be)," he said.

DreamHost is the domain registrar for neo-Nazi groups like American Nazi Party and the National Alliance.

Some experts think content policies could be a slippery slope if companies such as web hosts and domain registrars, who are deeper in the infrastructure of the internet, start making and enforcing their own rules outside established legal parameters.

"The internet was built on having all of the machines in the middle be completely neutral so that anybody could transmit any content. If we start having the machines in the middle exercise their own judgment beyond what the law requires, that starts looking a little weird," Keller said.

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