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Should tech companies be able to shut down neo-Nazis?

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Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince and Electronic Frontier Foundation Executive Director Cindy Cohn debate the future of free speech on Too Embarrassed to Ask.

In the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., where dozens were injured and one counter-protestor was killed, the battle moved online.

The four-year-old neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer was evicted by web hosts GoDaddy and Google after it disparaged the woman killed in Charlottesville, Heather Heyer. And then web infrastructure company Cloudflare, which had previously been criticized for how it handled reports of abuse by the website, publicly and permanently terminated the Stormer’s account, too, forcing it to the dark web.

But should a tech company have that power? Even Cloudflare’s CEO Matthew Prince, who personally decided to pull the plug, thinks the answer should be “no” in the future.

“I am confident we made the right decision in the short term because we needed to have this conversation,” Prince said on the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. “We couldn’t have the conversation until we made that determination. But it is the wrong decision in the long term. Infrastructure is never going to be the right place to make these sorts of editorial decisions.”

Interviewed by Recode’s Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode, Prince was joined on the new episode by the executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Cindy Cohn. Although the two organizations have worked together in the past, Cohn co-authored a public rebuke of Cloudflare’s decision, saying it threatened the “future of free expression.”

“The moment where this is about Nazis, to me, is very late in the conversation,” Cohn said, citing past attempts to shut down political websites. “What they do is they take down the whole website, they can’t just take down the one bad article. The whole Recode website comes down because you guys say something that pisses off some billionaire.”

“These companies, including Matthew’s, have a right to decide who they’re doing business with, but we urge them to be really, really cautious about this,” she added.

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Prince and Cohn agreed that part of the long-term solution to controversial speech online — no matter how odious — may be establishing and respecting a set of transparent, principled rules that cross international borders.

“I believe deeply in free speech, but it doesn’t have the same force around the rest of the world,” Prince said. “What does is an idea of due process, that there are a set of rules you should follow, and you should be able to know going into that. I don’t think the tech industry has that set of due processes.”

Cohn noted that there is a process for stopping someone from speaking before they can speak — prior restraint. For most of America’s history, obtaining such an injunction against someone has been intentionally difficult.

“We wouldn’t have a country if people couldn’t voice radical ideas and they had to go through a committee of experts or tech bros,” she said. “If you have to go on bended knee before you get to speak, you’re going to reduce the universe of ideas. Maybe you’ll get some heinous ideas, but you might not get the Nelson Mandelas, either.”

Have questions about free speech on the internet that we didn’t get to in this episode? Tweet them to @Recode with the hashtag #TooEmbarrassed, or email them to [email protected]

Be sure to follow @LaurenGoode, @KaraSwisher and @Recode to be alerted when we’re looking for questions about a specific topic.

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