One of the internet’s oldest and most popular neo-Nazi forums, which has been linked to dozens of murders, has been shut down after more than two decades of promoting white supremacy.
Stormfront, which had more than 300,000 members at its height, recently had its domain name placed on hold by host provider Network Solutions after the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights drafted a letter to Network Solutions’ parent company, Web.com. The committee argued that Stormfront violated Web.com’s Acceptable Use Policy by utilizing the service “to display bigotry, racism, discrimination or hatred” and said the website was used to encourage violent participation in the Unite the Right rally.
“If Web.com takes action now…the company will serve as an example for other providers of domain registration services, as well as an example of corporate leadership standing up to hate,” the letter read.
The shutdown follows a ban on The Daily Stormer, which had its domain registration cancelled by Google and web hosting service GoDaddy. The site briefly returned to the internet five days ago under a different name, before being taken down again. It is now believed to be operating on the Dark Web.
Stormfront’s founder, former Klu Klux Klan leader Don Black, told the Orlando Sentinel that he was talking to his lawyers, which was about “all he could do.”
“I can switch to another domain,” he added, “but it might wind up the same way.”
The SPLC has tied Black’s website to dozens of murders from 2009 to 2014. Perhaps the most notorious of these is Anders Behring Brevik, who killed 77 people in a terrorist attack in Norway in 2011. Most of his victims were teenagers at a summer camp on Utoya Island. He had been posting on Stormfront since 2008 under the username “year2183”.
Brevik initially claimed he had been banned from Stormfront but later admitted that was a lie. “I was never kicked out of Stormfront,” he said. “Instead I attacked them in the compendium in order to protect them. An army of leftist journalists would otherwise strike hard.”
Black later admitted that his site “attracts too many sociopaths.”
Another follower, Richard Andrew Poplawski, ambushed and killed three Pittsburgh police officers with an AK-47, and later wounded two others, in 2009. The Anti-Defamation League later found that Poplawski had been posting on Stormfront since 2006, urging his fellow white supremacists to “[take] back our nation”.
Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project Director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, explained that “Network Solutions allowed him [Black] to have a site and Cloudflare allowed him DDOS protection,” in turn propping up his dangerous rhetoric. The shutdown, then, was a way to end that.
“Every step of the way on the web there is some major provider,” Beirich said. “There are all these pinch points.”
In wake of the Unite the Right rally, tech companies began cracking down on accounts promoting hate and violence. In turn, Stormfront and The Daily Stormer began seeking out lesser-known web hosting companies, like Cloudflare and Network Solutions.
Fortunately, Beirich said, Black now has a limited number of options to keep propagating his message. “He could get an account on Gab [a social media site favored by white supremacists] but his audience would be massively diminished,” she explained. “He could also try to find a Dark Web domain but again his reach would be diminished. Or he could pursue an IP address through a foreign country but that path is fraught, pricey and access is limited.”
The decision to take Stormfront and the Daily Stormer offline, however, has some free speech advocates worried that the decisions could set a dangerous online precedent.
“This situation is deeply fraught with emotional, logistical and legal twists and turns,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said in a statement. “All fair-minded people must stand against the hateful violence and aggression that seems to be growing across this country.” EFF added that, “on the Internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with.”
Beirich disagrees. “I understand the EFF’s point, but this is not a government situation, these are private companies,” she said. “Just because you have freedom of speech does not mean that you have the right to be heard by companies who decide who they do business with.”