Looking at Internet Governance as we now understand it, we could say that it has two distinct fronts with the ability to generate standards: on the one hand, the private sector traditionally takes care of the management of infrastructure and names and numbers, while on the other hand, governments and their legislative bodies are responsible for dealing with the regulation of content itself. While this is a simplification and these spheres of power often overlap, an event from August 14 of 2017 drew attention to the advancement of the private sector in content regulation.
The neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer has been in operation since 2013, acting as a platform on which social hate content was concentrated, particularly of the anti-Semitic kind, and it held a number of violent and confrontational stances that sometimes bordered on the simply criminal. Freedom of speech is an assumption in the United States, so the registrar GoDaddy, the largest Internet domain reseller company on the Internet, operated the .com domain of the website without discriminating against it. This happened in spite of growing pressure from activists compelling the company to abandon The Daily Stormer.
The march entitled Unite the Right was planned for the 11th and 12th in Charlottesville, Virginia. The justification for the aggregation was to protest against the removal of a statue, an act that was being carried out under allegations of racism, but in reality we can say that the context of the event was largely a demonstration of the strength of the nationalist, supremacist, and neo-Nazi movements proliferating in the country. The negative attention generated around the event was so great that Airbnb had prevented people planning to attend the march from using their services to stay in the city.
Strongly promoted by The Daily Stormer, the march was heavily opposed by varied groups and individuals who gathered in Charlottesville to protest against it, including left-wing extremists like Antifa. The local governor declared a state of emergency, which implied in the cancellation of the march due to the resulting agglomeration.
The alleged reason for the state of emergency was that the police did not dispose of enough structure to deal with confrontations that could emerge there, so the dispersion of both groups of demonstrators was carried out. Even this process was violent, and at one point a 20-year-old man claiming to be "against equality" drove his car toward a crowd of people protesting the march, causing 1 death and injuring 19.
The next day, the editor-in-chief and owner of The Daily Stormer published a story about the 32-year-old murdered woman, Heather Heyer. He presented a caricature of the victim as "fat and childless", categorizing her as belonging to a group of women "useless to society", generally disqualifying the role of women in the contemporary world, and, more importantly, classifying the death of this type of woman as beneficial to society.
This particular set of statements generated such widespread social uproar and outrage that GoDaddy finally decided that it was no longer willing to manage the DNS of the website, either by moral principles or by not wanting to have their brand denigrated further. Surely, this was not the first time that GoDaddy choose to suspend the operation of a domain, but in the world of registrars this usually only occurs through court orders.
The Daily Stormer followed the same path many jihadist websites have taken and migrated from the Web to the darknet in the Tor network. While the website does remain in existance, its potential public is much smaller, as in addition to the technical aspects needed for accessing the Tor network, it is perhaps even more relevant that the content stopped being easily indexed by search engines, removing the material from evidence and minimizing its potential access.
If we look at the event from a purely social point of view, we could say that this was a victory. It is undeniable that the content being presented went beyond the limits of the acceptable and transgressed the right of expression, and can be categorized as objectively criminal. Having said that, it is also important to think of the precedent that this establishes for the continuity of Internet Governance, and if seen from that angle we still only end up with an advantageous result.
If today we observe a normative environment led by the private sector in the form of ICANN, on the other hand governments seem to be increasingly thirsty for actively participating in this more technical space, seeing as within that institution we observe a heated discussion on the use of geographical terms in domain names, largely driven by previous problems with ".patagonia" and, more importantly, ".amazon".
In the meantime, the question of content almost always remains entirely the responsibility of the State, so that within its sovereignty it still has the last say in terms of what information its citizens can consume on a regular basis. However, in this case what happened was that the decision taken by a private company triggered a reaction among others of its environment, without any State intervention. This created a general consensus, and even without a formal agreement, the effect generated was equivalent to that of a norm. We can see in this movement the potential for establishing a much larger private governance of the global computer network than we are accustomed to. These actors acted collectively without relying on any other power to influence the situation and, as an industry, expelled The Daily Stormer off the Web in a uncoordinated movement of self-regulation.
Even though in this case such an arrangement has been used for the general good, it could easily also be used for the opposite effect. Actors with less noble purposes can increasingly act in this way to generate supranational effects that affect the entire network. We are becoming more and more entangled in this network, and it is necessary to pay attention to this theme and to which actors are acting in what way, so as to never be surprised by the generation of a norm that we do not want as a society.