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White supremacists who used Discord to plan Charlottesville rally may soon lose their anonymity

The ‘ability to hide behind an anonymous username’ may enable more than just free speech

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

In the aftermath of the violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, attorneys for injured counter-protestors have filed a subpoena for chat platform Discord, where they say members of the alt-right gathered prior to the event. The Washington Post reports that Discord messages discussing logistics, encouraging violence, and more have been cited in a federal lawsuit against Unite the Right organizers as evidence that they “conspired to commit acts of violence, intimidation and harassment.”

Following the Charlottesville attack, where one woman was killed, Discord banned servers promoting Nazi ideology. “Discord’s mission is to bring people together around gaming,” the company said at the time. “We’re about positivity and inclusivity. Not hate. Not violence...We will continue to take action against white supremacy, nazi ideology, and all forms of hate.”

In a statement to The Verge, a Discord spokesperson said that its terms of service and community guidelines prohibit harassment, threatening messages, and calls to violence. “Though we do not monitor private messages, we do investigate and take immediate appropriate action against any reported violations,” the spokesperson said. “This was the case after incidents in Charlottesville where we swiftly removed servers and users from the platform and took steps to prevent their return.”

Discord says it can’t comment on ongoing litigation, but its team is “closely following any updates in the case and have been in communication with relevant parties” over the past seven months. “We will continue to be aggressive toward bad actors on our platform.”

According to US Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero, it is “clear that many members of the ‘alt-right’ feel free to speak online in part because of their ability to hide behind an anonymous username.” Although attorneys filed a subpoena for both messages and account information, Spero decided against the former under the Stored Communications Act.

Information uncovered about users will be classified as “highly confidential” and restricted, despite the efforts of one suit trying to block the subpoena. “While even limited disclosure of this information may create some chilling effect,” Spero writes, “the protections available through a designation of ‘highly confidential’ mitigate that harm, and Plaintiffs’ interest in this information, which is relevant to testing their claims of an alleged violent conspiracy based on racial and religious animus, outweighs the potential harm to [Jane Doe’s] right to association.”