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Tech vendors cite TOS violations to push hate groups off their clouds

'Alt-right' groups put to the test marketing and CRM cloud vendors that promote employee diversity and forbid users from hosting hateful or offensive content on their platforms.

Hate groups looking to further expand their online followings using popular marketing and CRM clouds may find themselves up against an unarmed, yet sneaky-powerful adversary: vendor terms-of-service agreements.

After violence at the August Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., culminated with injuries and a fatality, several cloud service vendors cited TOS violations and moved quickly to sever ties with such groups, including a neo-Nazi news and commentary site.

GoDaddy, Google, SendGrid and Cloudflare terminated various services to the site, including security and domain hosting, after it posted an article savaging Heather Heyer, who was killed counter-protesting alt-right groups in Charlottesville. The so-called "alt-right" mashes up ideas of racism, white nationalism and populism, and has grown in recent years via online forums.

In a Tweet August 14, Zoho, which provides various cloud services to businesses, including CRM and email marketing, announced it had terminated its relationship with the neo-Nazi website. Many people responded to that tweet with messages of support and urged other service providers to follow suit. Zoho's terms of service specifically prohibit defamatory, harassing and abusive material, and that which "is otherwise objectionable, offends religious sentiments, [or] promotes racism."

Standing united, technology companies ultimately drove the hate site to the dark web. It was a rare moment of solidarity among capitalists; a precedent for future cases of how otherwise unconnected cloud vendors must occasionally band together in ad hoc partnerships to deal with hate groups.

Charlottesville speaker remains

Yet, despite referring to TOS violations when kicking the above-mentioned neo-Nazi site off its cloud, Zoho, which declined comment for this article, has so far allowed Utah white identity blogger Ayla Stewart to stay.

Stewart, who was slated to speak at the Unite the Right rally until authorities in Charlottesville shut down the event, maintains a email address, according to her WordPress blog, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts as of August 2017.

Since Zoho declined to comment about the nature of its relationship with Stewart, it could be that she simply maintains an email address with the site and nothing more. However, the company differentiates itself from simple email services such as Gmail and Yahoo Mail by emphasizing its email marketing and CRM integration tools, as well as back-end business support for processes such as managing forms, invoicing and inventory.

For cloud vendors, it can be tough to purge the rolls of alt-right members, even when they want to do so. Zoho isn't the only cloud vendor in this position. Finding the alt-right in the first place can be tough. And in the case of Zoho, there's a 10-day process in which customers can respond to individual complaints before Zoho reveals the customer's identity to the complainant for possible legal action.

The question is, at what point does a typical company -- which can choose between numerous cloud platforms for marketing and CRM services -- decide it doesn't want to be associated with a cloud provider that supports what its customers would consider hate speech? And how does a cloud vendor, caught in the middle, determine when to cut ties with a controversial brand?

Legalities weigh into the process

That's where terms of service come in to play, giving companies a way to protect their own brands and shield themselves from controversy. They can kick any person or group off of their cloud platform due to TOS violations without having to make a political statement.

Yet, TOS violations aren't always cut and dried -- while the rules give a company authority to sever business ties, it's the humans behind the screen who determine the interpretation and enforcement of those rules. Further muddying the matter are contrasting jurisdictional rules, said Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research.

"I would imagine there's even more complications when a company serves a global customer base. So it's not just a matter of freedom of speech [in the United States]," he said.

Pegasystems is in that situation. The company confirmed that it conducts background checks on its clients, which tend to be among the world's largest companies, to confirm compliance with major regulations. Two sets in particular include those promulgated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which enforces sanctions; and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, which covers payments from U.S. companies to foreign government officials, politicians and political parties.

Some vendors ban racism outright

Both Oracle and Salesforce, which have marketing and CRM cloud services, offered guidance on how their policies give them the option to sever ties with hate groups due to TOS violations. Oracle's Cloud Services agreement, Schedule C, bans from the service "material that is false, defamatory, harassing or obscene; violate[s] privacy rights; promote[s] bigotry, racism, hatred or harm."

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has been more candid than many tech company leaders regarding the importance of equality and corporate morality, so the company was quick to comment on its own TOS rules.

Salesforce certainly isn't just jumping on the bandwagon; they have always been champions of social causes.
Alan LepofskyConstellation Research

"Salesforce has long prohibited the use of its services to promote hateful or other offensive content," a company spokesperson said in an email. The company's policy is quite specific, prohibiting "hate-related or violent material including material advocating discrimination or racial, religious or ethnic intolerance."

That doesn't surprise Lepofsky.

"Some organizations seem to have it in their DNA, while others fake it," he said. "Salesforce certainly isn't just jumping on the bandwagon; they have always been champions of social causes. Whether it's [against] hate, religion, sexual orientation, Salesforce has really led the way."

Microsoft, which did not respond in time for publication, supports a broad employee diversity program, and the Microsoft Online Services Acceptable Use Policy forbids "threatening, stalking, defaming, defrauding, degrading, victimizing or intimidating anyone for any reason," a possible avenue to combat a group seen as promoting ideas contrary to its corporate values of promoting diversity.

Salesforce Chairman and CEO Marc Benioff presents at Salesforce's inaugural Equality Awards
Salesforce Chairman and CEO Marc Benioff presents at Salesforce's inaugural Equality Awards in April.

Obviously, it's up to the cloud vendors to examine their customer base and determine just exactly who is conducting business as usual, as well as what constitutes a TOS violation worthy of cutting ties with a customer.

Brand owners, too, might want to re-examine their marketing platforms -- and with whom they're keeping company. Companies get to elect where they spend their marketing budgets. The cloud platforms that harbor hate may run the risk of being left in the rear-view mirror, relegated to the trash heap of yesterday's outdated tech. 

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