When should tech companies refuse to serve hate groups?

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Every few months, a tech company faces backlash over providing services to a hate group of some kind. Usually they explain their decision as a commitment to promoting free speech and a fair and open society.

But in reality, that tech company SHOULD turn down those clients, precisely BECAUSE it values free speech and a fair and open society. The Paradox of Tolerance explains why supporting some kinds of speech actually harms society, and the Intolerable Speech Rule (below) gives a step-by-step guide to choosing which clients to serve, using the Paradox of Tolerance as a guide.

The Paradox of Tolerance

The Paradox of Tolerance says that a tolerant society should be intolerant of one thing: intolerance itself. This is because if a tolerant society allows intolerant ideas and groups to take over, it will destroy the tolerant part of the society and there will be no tolerance left anywhere. Some examples of this kind of intolerance include a white supremacist news site, a forum that harasses queer people out of their homes, or a public figure who encourages sexual harassment and assault.

What the Paradox of Tolerance means for tech companies committed to free speech is that they should not serve clients that advocate against a tolerant society. But many people are unsure about where to draw a specific line. For example, what if someone claims that their religious beliefs require them to discriminate against queer people? What’s more important, tolerating the religious belief or tolerating someone’s sexual or gender identity? To make these kinds of decisions easier, I created the Intolerable Speech Rule.

The Intolerable Speech Rule

Here is a detailed rule for tech companies to use in deciding which content to host or clients to support.

If the content or the client is:

  1. Advocating for the removal of human rights
  2. From people based on an aspect of their identity
  3. In the context of systemic oppression primarily harming that group
  4. In a way that overall increases the danger to that group

Then don’t allow them to use your products or services.

This isn’t the only rule you should use – you should use this rule in addition to all your existing rules against spam, fraud, illegal activity, etc. and seek legal advice on how to best implement this. What’s important to remember is that many tech companies already refuse to host many kinds of speech, including hate speech, and improve their business by doing so.

As for the question about whether you should tolerate someone discriminating against queer people because of their religious beliefs, the answer is no. The short version is that a religious belief is an opinion, not an aspect of identity, and it does not give someone the right to remove human rights from another person for who they are (in this case, queer). To learn more, read about Religious Beliefs and the Paradox of Tolerance.

Video and additional resources

Video of our talk on the Intolerable Speech Rule

Slides (PDF) (transcript)

Cory Doctorow expands on the Intolerable Speech Rule

Article on the Paradox of Tolerance as it applies to white supremacists in the U.S.

Wikipedia entry for the Paradox of Tolerance

Featured image CC BY Travis Wise, edited by FSC https://flic.kr/p/owCAJG