CEOs’ condemnation of white supremacists isn’t the result of some newfound moral compass

Companies are just protecting their bottom lines.

GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving holds a foam hat on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as he waits for his company's IPO to begin trading, Wednesday, April 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving holds a foam hat on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as he waits for his company's IPO to begin trading, Wednesday, April 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

If GoDaddy wasn’t the first, it was certainly the biggest. The world’s largest domain name registry announced on Monday that it would boot The Daily Stormer, the online hub for white supremacists and neo-Nazis who days earlier staged a rally in Charlottesville and allegedly murdered a 32-year-old protester, from its database.

The floodgates were opened. Before the week was up, tech companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Discord, Cloudflare, and Spotify—and even dating site OK Cupid—were issuing forceful edicts opposing white supremacy and its adherents, and booting them from their services.

In an age where the president of the United States defends—and employs—neo-Nazis, taking a stand against white supremacy has somehow become a courageous act of corporate activism.

But while all these companies do deserve credit for demonstrating the kind of leadership Donald Trump has proven incapable of, their recently discovered intolerance for hatred is just that: a recent discovery.

Take The Daily Stormer. Its brand of white supremacy and bigotry might be getting a wider audience now that it has an ally in the White House, but nothing about the site’s rhetoric is new. For years, it has publicly called for white, Christian rule in the United States and urged violence toward Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, and anyone else who is not white. The site’s extremist leaders have organized public gatherings, defended the Confederacy, and attacked those who stand in their way. All the while, major tech companies  were happy to turn the other cheek.

So what changed? GoDaddy spokesman Dan Race attempted to offer an explanation for the decision to the New York Times.

“Given The Daily Stormer’s latest article comes on the immediate heels of a violent act, we believe this type of article could incite additional violence, which violates our terms of service,” he said. Race was referring to an article on the site that attacked and mocked Heather Heyer, who was killed by a car that drove into a group of people protesting white supremacists in Charlottesville.

Other companies who came out against hate this week couched their decisions in similar language. They weren’t policing speech—as many on the right were quick to accuse—but rather enforcing their own terms of service, most of which have explicit language barring hate speech. Several companies did not return requests for comment by the time of publication.

Apple didn’t respond to ThinkProgress’ requests for comment about what prompted the change of heart this week. Cloudflare and GoDaddy directed ThinkProgress to previous statements with boilerplate language about their terms of service.

But as The Daily Beast reported this week, even this enforcement of the companies’ own terms of service is discretionary. Back in July, the online magazine reported that GoDaddy was hosting The Daily Stormer despite glaring violations of its own service agreement that read, in part, “don’t even think about using our service to…engage in morally offensive activity [emphasis theirs].”

When pressed by The Daily Beast at the time about why The Daily Stormer was allowed to use its services, GoDaddy responded by quietly deleting entire sections of its terms of service that expressly prohibited content meant to “defame, embarrass, harm, abuse, threaten, or harass third parties,” or do anything “racially, ethnically, or otherwise objectionable.” (Of course, GoDaddy’s commitment to policing “objectionable” content has always been specious.)

So if it wasn’t escalation on the part of these white supremacists—they’ve been doing and saying the same things for years—and if it wasn’t a change of heart by these massive tech companies, why the sudden stampede to exorcise The Daily Stormer and their ilk from the internet?

It’s simple, really: It’s all just business.

These days, it doesn’t take much more than the threat of a boycott to get companies to behave like good corporate citizens. Companies are worried about losing the business of Americans who oppose things like white supremacy, or LGBTQ discrimination, or sexism — because those are the people who are responsible for an overwhelming majority of the country’s economic activity.

A Brookings Institute study late last year found that despite losing the election, the counties that supported Hillary Clinton accounted for 64 percent of the country’s GDP. If you’re a CEO caught between the people sympathetic to the neo-Nazis who assembled in Charlottesville and the people horrified by the white nationalist groups that instigated last weekend’s events, there’s no question which demographic you want to avoid offending.

The evidence bears this out. Progressives have launched successful campaigns against companies like Target and Barilla, and even Fox News has bowed to pressure after its top-rated show began hemorrhaging advertisers who were unwilling to anger their customers. When conservatives try their hand at large-scale boycotts, well…it doesn’t usually work out.

For years, GoDaddy and its peers have hosted hate sites like The Daily Stormer without ruffling too many feathers. That position became untenable the moment James Alex Fields Jr. revved his engine and plowed into a crowd of anti-hate demonstrators with his car. Companies ought to be recognized for doing the right thing. But seldom is a moral high ground paramount to a bottom line.