For years, some of the biggest technology companies in the world have struggled with how to deal with extremists who use their platforms to spread hateful messages. But in the aftermath of the violent events in Charlottesville, Va., public pressure has now turned toward the ecosystem of public and private digital-infrastructure companies providing basic services such as domain registries (who owns the .com and .media addresses online) and domain-name servers (who maintain the links between registered addresses and the rest of the Web).
Such companies were once viewed as neutral managers of the plumbing of the Internet. But the clash in Charlottesville this month, where a suspected member of a white supremacist group allegedly drove a car into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters and killed one, has added to the debate about what's fair comment on the Internet and what role technology companies play. Neutrality is not an acceptable stance to some consumers who demand action to fight potentially dangerous online organization of far-right groups that espouse racist, fascist or white supremacist ideologies.
In a much-publicized episode, the Nazi-praising website Daily Stormer has been effectively chased off the public Internet by Google and GoDaddy: Both companies rescinded their domain registry services, effectively delisting the site, which has been in operation since 2013.
"All of this puts platform providers in a really tough position. You manage hundreds of thousands or millions of customers, so it's impossible to know what they're all doing and aside from standard 'abuse' issues, you shouldn't really be regulating them anyway," said Mark Jeftovic, a self-described free-speech absolutist and chief executive of EasyDNS Technologies Inc. in Toronto.
"Suddenly, a flash mob forms saying, 'You provide services to XYZ, you support XYZ-ism, you are a XYZ-ist,' and enormous pressure is brought to bear to pull the plug on XYZ. No due process, no context, just do it or else."
The infrastructure companies aren't the only ones caught up in consumer outrage over the violence and hatred of these groups: Airbnb has denied access to rentals to those suspected of travelling to white supremacist rallies, Twitter and Facebook have been suspending accounts associated with extremists, GoFundMe and Patreon have suspended crowdfunding campaigns connected to right-wing hate groups, Spotify has been removing white power-themed music, credit-card giants Visa and MasterCard have renewed efforts to not process payments and funds intended for hate groups.
The CEO of at least one of the infrastructure companies that dropped the Daily Stormer after facing public pressure has expressed a mixture of regret and frustration over his own actions. On Aug. 16, Matthew Prince, CEO of Cloudflare, warned in a blog post explaining his decision that in the near future, "Without a clear framework as a guide for content regulation, a small number of companies will largely determine what can and cannot be online."
Expanding on that thought in an interview with Marketplace published on Tuesday, Mr. Prince said "what I hope comes out of this is an understanding that there's a real risk and a real danger of infrastructure companies like Cloudflare being the Internet police.
"Regulators, law enforcement, civil society organizations, content creators, content consumers.… Any one of them can be making editorial decisions about what is and is not allowed online. And we need a social contract as to who can and can't do that. And that needs to be transparent."
A Canadian right-wing media site run by political commentator Ezra Levant also appears to have been rocked by the waves of condemnation. Mr. Levant's company came under fire for its connection to the Charlottesville violence in part owing to coverage by former on-air personality Faith Goldy, who attended the rallies. Ms. Goldy then had her contract with Rebel Media terminated after appearing on a podcast connected to Daily Stormer.
"Our DNS server gave us 24 hours to move.… It was a surprise move, clearly without any legitimate basis under the terms of service, clearly motivated by politics," Mr. Levant wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. The effect of this was that for about 24 hours, parts of the Rebel's site appeared offline. It's not clear who caused the interruption.
According to a history tool at ViewDNS.info, until Aug. 17 the therebel.media domain was hosted by Tiggee LLC, a small DNS services company based in Reston, Va., located just outside Washington and about two hours away from Charlottesville. After that, Amazon Web Services became the new name server for therebel.media.
David Miller, chief technology officer of Tiggee, the parent company of DNS Made Easy, said in an e-mail the company did not stop providing services to the Rebel.
"Until recently DNS Made Easy name servers were assigned as the authoritative DNS servers for the domain therebel.media," Mr. Miller said. "Last week the domain therebel.media migrated to another DNS service provider."
The Rebel is no stranger to online activism: For months, a group named Sleeping Giants have been waging a social-media campaign that alleges the site traffics in racist commentary. So far, more than 300 brands, services, governments and businesses have pledged to no longer allow their advertising to appear on the Rebel.
In the United States, where many of the Internet giants are based, this debate is influenced by a political culture that venerates the U.S. Constitution's commitment to free speech. But while that protection is about the government passing no laws to abridge speech, private companies who form the backbone of the Internet are under no such legal obligation to protect speech.
In Canada, however, there are much stronger civil controls on hate speech, reaffirmed as recently as 2013 at the Supreme Court in the case Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) v. Whatcott.
"In Canada, it's a different kettle of fish than U.S.-based hosts or service providers … service providers have to comply with Canadian law," said Richard Warman, an Ottawa-based human-rights lawyer. "That's consistent with 30 years of Canadian of jurisprudence; the Canadian courts have always said we will take a different approach than the U.S. These civil law controls are constitutional: We don't just have 2b. freedom of expression, we also have Section 15 equality rights."
In the context of the Rebel, Mr. Warman is untroubled by the actions of service providers to decide to part ways with the company.
"Many people of the [far-right] advocate virtually unrestricted private-enterprise rights; they shouldn't raise their voices and complain if a company decides to exercise those rights in a way that they don't like," Mr. Warman said.