Social network Gab.ai, known as an anything-goes haven for the far-right, is seeing blowback from the past month’s online white supremacist crackdown. CEO Andrew Torba writes that last week, domain registrar AsiaRegistry told Gab to take down a post by the founder of neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer. Torba complied, but in the process, he set off a debate over the platform’s “free speech” bona fides — and the state of moderating online hate speech.
Gab promotes itself as a non-politically affiliated anti-censorship platform, but it hosts several high-profile far-right or “alt-right” users who have been banned from other services over hate speech or harassment, including the Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin. According to Torba, AsiaRegistry said that one of Anglin’s posts, which mocked alleged Charlottesville murder victim Heather Heyer, violated the registrar’s abuse policy. After receiving a formal complaint, AsiaRegistry gave Gab 48 hours to remove the post. (AsiaRegistry and its parent company CentralNic didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.)
Torba told Anglin to take the post down, but he didn’t mention the registrar at first. Instead, he justified it on the technicality that Anglin hadn’t appropriately tagged his comment as “not safe for work.” Anglin responded by castigating Gab as a “fraud platform” with an interface like “a fucked up version of AOL in 1994,” labeling Torba a “free-speech hoax artist.” Other users joined him in criticizing, or threatening to leave the site.
Amid these protests, Torba published the email with the registrar complaint, saying he’d compromised to keep the site online. Anglin reversed course and described his detail-free takedown request as “brilliant,” since the resulting controversy proved that free speech is Gab’s vital selling point. But that hasn’t placated everyone, including users who say Torba should have immediately laid out the situation — and those who say Gab can’t deliver on its core promise if a company can order it to take down posts.
Torba’s critics are right to point out that registrars, which sell web addresses on behalf of the multinational organization ICANN, are a vulnerable pressure point in the alt-right’s quest to establish an unmoderated online space. These companies have long held the power to ban sites, but it’s become a major issue since GoDaddy and several other services kicked out the Daily Stormer in August, relegating it to a dark web address.
Registrars will probably find Gab less objectionable than the Daily Stormer. Namecheap — which refused to serve the Daily Stormer — said it would be “happy” to help, and Gab chief communications officer Utsav Sanduja says it’s in talks with the registrar. But infrastructure providers have been visibly sympathetic to anti-racist activism lately, even companies that have served hate sites for years. Stormfront’s registrar recently seized its domain after more than two decades of operation.
Some on the far-right have publicly called for parallel internet services in response to this pressure, and Torba says Gab wants to help create “a decentralized, blockchain-based, radically transparent, people-powered internet infrastructure.” Sanduja says the company is considering founding or joining a new “free speech”-focused registrar, though he declined to provide specifics, saying Gab was “exploring all of our options presently at this time.”
Gab (or a similar company) could theoretically found its own registrar, although it’s an expensive and complicated proposition. The “blockchain-based” description, however, sounds like an alternate domain name system in the vein of Namecoin’s dot-bit domains. This would let a site bypass the whole ICANN registry process, but it would also make it tougher to visit, since it would be walled off from the ordinary internet.
Unlike the Daily Stormer or Stormfront, Gab is officially politically neutral and relatively close to the mainstream online ecosystem. It’s nearing the end of a $1 million crowdfunded investment campaign on StartEngine, and users can purchase “Pro” memberships through PayPal and Stripe, both of which have dropped more explicitly alt-right-related people and platforms. It’s got a lot to gain right now by staying as accessible as possible — but if the pressure stays on, the cost of doing so could rise.