Sammamish-based web entrepreneur and free-speech advocate Rob Monster, who has hosted websites for neo-Nazis and other violence-touting extremists, said Monday he is undecided whether to host the controversial online forum 8chan that’s been linked to one of the past weekend’s mass shootings.
But he defended the idea of doing so.
8chan reportedly posted a racist “manifesto” by the 21-year-old accused of killing 22 people in El Paso on Saturday. Even before the weekend, the forum had become what The New York Times called “a go-to resource for violent extremists.”
On Sunday, after 8chan was booted by its provider in response to the shootings, 8chan reportedly approached Monster’s company Epik.com about providing DDoS mitigation services. Those services help shield websites from distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which can crash sites by overwhelming them with waves of internet traffic.
While equivocating about his plans, Monster defended his company’s hosting of such sites. “Our services fill the ever-growing need for a neutral service provider that will not arbitrarily terminate accounts based on social or political pressure,” he wrote in a statement to The Seattle Times on Monday.
It’s not clear whether Epik did provide that protection for 8chan, or for how long.
On Monday, the website TechCrunch reported that an Epik.com subsidiary had hosted 8chan for several hours between Sunday evening and Monday morning. But by late Monday morning, 8chan was again offline.
In his statement, Monster insisted that Epik “did not solicit this business” from 8chan. He also said that Epik has “not made a definitive decision about whether to provide DDoS mitigation or Content Delivery services for them. We will evaluate this in the coming days.”
Still, as he has repeatedly in the past, Monster sought to frame the question as one of freedom of expression by arguing that hosting sites have no business censoring their users, as long as that use doesn’t break the law. 8chan is a largely unmoderated messaging board.
“We enter into a slippery slope when we start to limit speech that makes us uncomfortable,” he said in his statement.
Monster declined to say how Epik planned to evaluate 8chan as a potential client, or when that decision might be made. He also declined an interview or to answer additional questions.
Over the years, many providers, including mainstream players such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, have contended that it’s not the responsibility of internet-hosting platforms to monitor content posted by their tens of millions of users.
That position is bolstered by federal law, which shields platforms from liability for users’ content.
However, in recent years, mainstream providers have placed far more restrictions on user content. That shift has pushed such content onto fringe sites, such as 8chan, while creating a booming niche market for less-restrictive hosting platforms, such as Epik.com.
Last November, Epik.com stepped in to provide temporary hosting services for Gab.com after GoDaddy.com kicked Gab off. Gab, a social-network site, had posted anti-Semitic content by a man preparing to attack a Pittsburgh synagogue. After Gab came back online, Gab praised Epik and declared to followers, “Can’t stop us, won’t stop us. Free Speech LIVES!”
Similarly, in August 2017, after the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer lost its hosting services over its support of the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, it found an alternative platform on a then-new hosting company called BitMitigate, which Epik acquired earlier this year, according to The (Vancouver) Columbian.
Vancouver-based Nick Lim, who founded BitMitigate in 2017 at age 19, and who now serves as Epik’s chief technology officer, told The Seattle Times at the time that the Daily Stormer’s eviction by other hosting sites “was a violation of free speech.”
But how much longer the free-expression rationale will serve to insulate Epik’s business model is hard to say.
In his statement Monday about 8chan, Monster seemed to hedge his position. “Our philosophy is, if the customer is not breaking the law, providers of technology should apply discernment in determining whether or not to service.”
Monster also seemed to be putting some distance between Epik.com and the “Chans” — 8chan and its precursors, 4chan and 2chan, which were also criticized for hosting extremist content.
“From what little we know so far, the Chans are not lawless and do have moderation, especially in regards to DMCA [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] and content which is illegal in the United States,” Monster wrote. “Ultimately, we believe that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’ and that exposing hateful ideas is necessary if they are to be defeated.”
“However,” Monster wrote, “this must absolutely occur within the bounds of the law.”
But Epik’s position may not be quite as principled or as clear-cut as Monster’s statement implies.
According to a report by TechCrunch, Epik initially agreed to host 8chan after the forum was dumped by its former host, San Francisco-based Cloudflare.
On Sunday evening, a Twitter user claiming to be 8chan’s administrator told followers to “Expect some minutes of downtime in the coming hour as we switch over to @bitmitigate,” the Epik.com subsidiary.
But it seems that Epik.com hosted 8chan only briefly before the forum was again shut down. This shutdown came not because Epik.com had second thoughts about 8chan, TechCrunch reported, but because the company that Epik and BitMitigate buy their hosting services from, the San Francisco-based Voxility, didn’t want its services associated with 8chan.
“Turns out Voxility wants no part of hosting 8chan,” reported TechCrunch late Monday morning. After receiving a tip that Epik was hosting 8chan, Voxility “simply pulled the plug on Epik’s services.” That action appears to have left Epik exposed to DDoS attacks, which promptly took down some of its own clients.
As a result, “Bitmitigate, Daily Stormer, and 8chan are all down,” reported TechCrunch. “They deplatformed the platform.”
8chan’s admin vowed to find a way to “bring services back online,” but by Monday evening, the forum had yet to relaunch.
In the meantime, the shutdown has been cheered not only by opponents of hate speech —but also, somewhat oddly, by the man who founded 8chan.
According to The New York Times, 8chan was launched in 2013 by Fredrick Brennan as a “free speech alternative” to other online forums, which he believed had become too restrictive.
Brennan’s forum became popular during #Gamergate — a complicated controversy that tangled harassment of women in gaming with gaming journalism ethics — in 2014. The following year, 8chan was purchased by NT Technology, a Nevada-based firm whose owner, James Watkins, now runs the website from The Philippines.
NT Technology was formerly registered in Everett, according to state business records, and Watkins reportedly has also lived in Mukilteo and raised pigs there.
NT Technology’s website was unresponsive Monday morning and Watson could not be reached for comment. An earlier query to Watkins by The Washington Post earned only a cryptic reply: “I hope you are well.”
Although Brennan appears to have initially regarded Watkins as a collaborator, Brennan claims he has had no control over the site since 2016 and is now among its more outspoken critics.
After the shooting in El Paso, Brennan was quick to denounce 8chan’s role. “Once again, a terrorist used 8chan to spread his message as he knew people would save it and spread it,’ Brennan told The Washington Post, going on to say that the site’s current owners should “do the world a favor and shut it off.”
Seattle Times political reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report.