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WebOps platform Pantheon defends hosting “hate groups” as developers quit

WebOps platform Pantheon defends hosting “hate groups” as developers quit

Over the past week, backlash erupted on LinkedIn, in a thread where passionate open source developers began criticizing Pantheon. The developers and other Pantheon supporters commenting had just discovered that the website operations platform—which hosts more than 700,000 websites—is currently hosting websites for hugely influential anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigration organizations that have been designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

The controversy sparked after a digital strategist, Greg Dunlap, posted a link to SPLC’s page designating a Christian conservative legal advocacy group, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), as a hate group for its views on the LGBTQ community. On the page, SPLC described ADF as supporting “recriminalization of sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ adults in the US and criminalization abroad,” defending “state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad,” and claiming that a “homosexual agenda” will “destroy Christianity and society.”

In his LinkedIn post, Dunlap tagged Pantheon co-founders Josh Koenig and Zack Rosen, and asked them why Pantheon is hosting a website for the alleged hate group. ADF also has ties to high-ranking Republicans and has influenced Supreme Court opinions (including the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade).

Before the founders could respond to Dunlap, several Pantheon supporters began voicing their concerns in the thread, including pointing out that Pantheon also hosts the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). SPLC designated FAIR as a hate group for having “ties to white supremacist groups and eugenicists” and making “many racist statements.” Among Pantheon supporters expressing disappointment in Pantheon hosting these designated hate groups were customers who said their organizations were now seeking alternative hosting services. There were also developers, known as “Pantheon Heroes,” who said they would stop assisting Pantheon’s open source projects and would be leaving Pantheon’s program.

Koenig eventually responded, confirming that Pantheon would continue hosting the websites mentioned and not caving to the backlash. Koenig wrote:

“This is a difficult and complex topic, but the short answer is that we made a decision at the very beginning to be an open platform. That’s our roots: open source, open web, etc. We’re used by a very wide range of causes, campaigns, and political actors. It’s challenging when people we disagree with deeply on a personal level use our technology, but we’re neither an advocacy organization, nor in the content moderation business. I also appreciate that this is frustrating and dissatisfying to a lot of folks, but we believe it’s better to be up front and clear about our position.”

Some LinkedIn commenters noted that Pantheon’s terms of service prohibit using Pantheon services in any manner considered “abusive, threatening, harassing, hateful,” or “offensive.” The terms also specify that Pantheon reserves the right to remove any subscriber content at any time.

But in a separate document describing Pantheon’s “position on content on our platform,” the platform says that its “default position is to refrain from moderating what our customers publish,” which means Pantheon will provide services to organizations with “values and perspectives that vary widely.” This policy says that Pantheon differentiates between typical requests to remove content that violates its terms and other requests that ask Pantheon to “evaluate the mission or character of the organizations responsible for posting the content.”

“While our platform is particularly well-suited for media, political campaigns, and advocacy organizations, we intentionally refrain from bringing our personal beliefs and political viewpoints into customer interactions,” Pantheon’s post says. “As a company, we believe Pantheon can make a bigger difference in the world by supporting opportunities for positive impact than by limiting the use of the platform.”

Koenig told Ars that this policy is why Pantheon will continue hosting ADF’s website.

“The Alliance Defending Freedom website was flagged through our escalation process as potentially violating our terms of service,” Koenig told Ars. “This process evaluates the content on the website, not the organization itself. While the views of this organization are in no way aligned with the values Pantheon embraces internally, the content reviewed on its website was not found to be in violation with our terms of service.”

ADF’s senior counsel and senior vice president of corporate engagement, Jeremy Tedesco, told Ars that Pantheon was “doing the right thing by refusing to bow to cancel culture in the face of dishonest attacks.” Tedesco discredited the SPLC as a “blatantly partisan activist outfit,” and ADF’s website says that ADF considers the hate group label as representing SPLC’s “subjective opinion.”

SPLC did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.

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