Over and over again, those on America's far right have learned that the 1st Amendment doesn't protect them from Silicon Valley tech companies.
For weeks, neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other far-right figures have been organizing for a "Unite the Right" demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday, which is expected to be one of the largest rallies of its kind in at least a decade.
But days before the rally, the short-term lodging service Airbnb started suspending the accounts of rally attendees who had rented houses in the area. Why? The San Francisco-headquartered company requires customers to "accept people regardless of their race, religion, national origin, ethnicity," among other things — a deal breaker for white nationalists, who have been banned by other popular companies for similar reasons.
It was a blow for the organizers, who had "taken over all of the large AirBnBs in a particular area," according to a user on the message board for the Daily Stormer, a popular neo-Nazi website, who had "set up 'Nazi Uber' and the 'Hate Van' to help in moving our people around as needed."
This wasn't the first time the far-right had to find someone willing to provide services for its members. Increasingly, the group's solution is to provide its own.
Over the last two years, a crop of start-ups has begun offering social media platforms and financial services catering to right-wing Internet users.
"We're getting banned from using payment-processing services, so we have no other choice," said Tim Gionet, who goes by the name "Baked Alaska" and who is scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville rally. "If that's the gamble they want to take, I guess they can, and we'll make our own infrastructure."
The new companies are small, paling in audience size to their gargantuan, mainstream counterparts. But piece by piece, supporters of the far-right are assembling their own corporate tech world — a shadow Silicon Valley, one with fewer rules.
After being banned from Twitter during the 2016 presidential campaign, many members of the "alt-right" movement of white nationalists joined Gab, which describes itself as "an ad-free social network for creators who believe in free speech, individual liberty, and the free flow of information online." On Tuesday, one of the site's most popular posts was an image that said, "I ❤ BEING WHITE."
"The market is owned and controlled and operated by the oligarchy of Twitter and Facebook and Google," said Gab's founder, Andrew Torba.
"The reality is hate speech is free speech," Torba added, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent. With predominantly left-leaning companies, many of them in San Francisco, setting the boundaries on what speech isn't acceptable on for-profit platforms, "that's a huge opportunity to sit here and defend the Internet that I grew up on," he said.
Right-wing activists banned from the crowdfunding site Patreon can fundraise on Hatreon, a platform created to counter the "inexcusable content policing of services like Patreon."
Hatreon — pronounced HATE-ree-on — currently features fundraisers supporting Richard Spencer, one of America's most prominent white nationalists (who has 34 "patrons" pledging to donate $362 to him a month), and Andrew Anglin, who, as founder and editor of the Daily Stormer, is one of America's most prominent neo-Nazis (with 50 donors pledging $869.17 a month).
Spencer called Hatreon's founder, Cody Wilson, of Austin, Texas, to praise the service, telling him he would use it "even if you were the most left-wing Jewish communist," according to Wilson. (Spencer confirmed the accuracy of the remarks.)
Wilson, who is best known for his efforts to produce guns through 3-D printing, described himself as an "Internet anarchist" who wants to disrupt the establishment's status quo. He was intrigued by far-right users on social media, who sometimes post racist, sexist and anti-Semitic comments and images but also playful memes of their de facto mascot, "Pepe," a cartoon frog. "Frog Twitter and the so-called 'alt-right' — there's a lot of life there," Wilson said. "I'm kind of happy to help it mutate."
Another crowdfunding start-up, WeSearchr, has raised more than $150,000 for Anglin's legal defense in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the anti-extremism nonprofit, after Anglin organized a "troll storm" against a Jewish woman on the Daily Stormer.
WeSearchr often sponsors fundraisers for medical bills and legal defense funds for far-right figures who have gotten in fights with left-wing activists who call themselves "anti-fascists." It also offers "bounties" — money donated by users to meet a certain objective — seeking the identities of anti-fascists involved in violent encounters.
WeSearchr's owner, Chuck C. Johnson, a right-wing journalist and provocateur who has been banned from Twitter, told The Times in an email that it was "good business to allow free speech" and that he believes not discriminating against users' political views might give him better protection from lawsuits.
Johnson, whose operation is based in California, added that his attorney advised him that, under state law, it's illegal to discriminate on the basis of politics. "All are welcome to fundraise on my properties," Johnson wrote.
One of WeSearchr's other founders, Pax Dickinson, recently split from the company to start his own crowdfunding site, Counter.Fund, with an "explicit dedication against Marxist political correctness and the globalist progressive Left," according to its website.
Dickinson was the chief technology officer of Business Insider until he was forced to resign in 2013 after sexist and racist tweets of his were uncovered by the news site Gawker. Dickinson since has channeled his entrepreneurial energies into creating financial infrastructure to sustain the far-right.
"Counter-cultural content creators are trapped into funneling income streams through platforms owned by their ideological enemies," Dickinson wrote in a manifesto explaining the need for his new company. "A non-liberal on Patreon or Kickstarter is just one hack journalist's hit piece or progressive cultural campaign away from being censored from their platform and losing their income stream entirely."
Dickinson declined to be interviewed for this article.
The relationship between America's far right and liberal tech world was mutually beneficial at first.
As the alt-right movement gained momentum over the past two years, supporters found that advertising-supported platforms like Facebook and Twitter were powerful tools for trolling and self-promotion. For a fee, crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe offered the possibility for rising stars in the movement to convert their newfound social capital into actual financial capital.
But as the far-right's influence grew, many of those companies cracked down after liberals and leftists accused them of sponsoring hate speech.
"I don't want to patronize anyone that patronizes them," said Daryle Lamont Jenkins, an anti-fascist activist who has pressured companies that do business with far-right figures. "They make it clear that they want to undermine society, that they want to break up society as we know it, that they want to be a boot on everyone's neck. Why should we ignore that?"
The shutdown of financial services has cramped Anglin, who has said the Daily Stormer might shut down if he loses his lawsuit against the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Anglin accused his adversaries of "trying to silence protected speech, and they are able to shut down my access to PayPal, credit card processors, Patreon, advertisers, even webhosts, with threats to defame these companies in the media," Anglin told The Times in an email earlier this year.
As for Spencer, one of the alt-right's other most prominent figures, he still has a Twitter account, but he has been banned from the audio hosting site SoundCloud. He said three banks have terminated the accounts of his white nationalist nonprofit, the National Policy Institute, but the group still does business with online payment-processing services such as PayPal.
Every now and then, another company forces him out and leaves him with fewer options for how to advance his agenda, which includes traveling around the country to spread his beliefs.
Spencer said he recently discovered that he had been banned from Airbnb — presumably because of his viewpoints, which include calling for a separate nation for white people.
"I just went to my account, and it was gone," Spencer said. He sounded puzzled, given how his past hosts had rated him positively as a customer. "I had all these nice reviews."
Aug. 12, 4:55 p.m.: This story was updated with an additional comment from WeSearchr owner Chuck C. Johnson.