By Paul Roberts / The Seattle Times
A Seattle-area web-hosting firm has reversed course and decided not to host the 8chan web forum linked to Saturday’s mass shooting in El Paso.
Citing an “elevated possibility of violent radicalization on the platform,” Sammamish-based Epik said in a Tuesday statement that it won’t sell hosting service to 8chan, the online forum where the 21-year-old accused of killing 22 people in El Paso had reportedly posted a racist “manifesto.”
The decision comes a day after Epik, which has hosted controversial clients before, was outed for hosting 8chan for a few hours early Monday morning after the forum was kicked off a previous hosting platform Sunday.
In an equivocating statement issued later on Monday, Epik founder and CEO Rob Monster declared that his company had “not made a definitive decision about whether to provide” services for 8chan, while defending Epik’s ability to do so in the future.
But after a day of often-critical media coverage, Monster apparently had a change of heart.
In Tuesday’s unsigned statement, Epik acknowledged providing temporary hosting for 8chan, but went on to say that “Upon careful consideration of the recent operating history of 8Chan, and in the wake of tragic news in El Paso and Dayton over the weekend, Epik has elected to not provide content delivery services to 8Chan.”
The decision, according to statement, “is largely due to the concern of inadequate enforcement and the elevated possibility of violent radicalization on the platform.”
For several years, Epik and its subsidiary, BitMitigate, have served as platforms of last resort for controversial websites that are deemed unacceptable by larger, more mainstream hosting companies.
Last November, Epik.com stepped in to provide temporary hosting services for Gab.com, which had lost its previous hosting site after a man preparing to attack a Pittsburgh synagogue used Gab to post anti-Semitic content. In August 2017, BitMitigate (which Epik purchased this year, according to The (Vancouver) Columbian), sold hosting services to the Daily Stormer after the neo-Nazi website was “de-platformed” for supporting the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
Through it all, Epik has defended the hosting of such clients as a matter of free expression: hosting sites have no business censoring their users, as long as that use doesn’t break the law, it asserts. “We enter into a slippery slope when we start to limit speech that makes us uncomfortable,” Monster argued in his statement on Monday.
But that position has become increasingly difficult to sustain both politically and, as it turns out, commercially.
Not long after 8chan boasted on Twitter that it would be moving to Epik, a vendor that supplies Epik with hosting services “elected to discontinue services for Epik with immediate effect,” according to the Epik statement. That move, which was reportedly prompted by the vendor’s distaste for 8chan, caused several Epik clients to go dark, among them, 8chan and Daily Stormer.
In a message to The Seattle Times late Tuesday, Monster said Epik could have rerouted traffic to 8chan but “we decided not to.”
In its statement Tuesday, Epik maintained its support for internet freedom, but emphasized the growing problem of monitoring content for illegal activities, which its own rules prohibit.
“With the prevalence of user-generated content, including in fast-growing public forums, timely enforcement of Terms of Service can prove extremely difficult … In cases whereby Epik identifies a particular publisher as being underequipped to properly enforce its own Terms of Service, Epik reserves the right to deny service.”
While 8chan remains offline, its owner, former Mukilteo resident James Watkins, took to Twitter on Tuesday with claims that “Instagram, not 8chan,” was responsible for posting the El Paso shooter’s manifest.
According to CNET, a spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, said Facebook had “disabled an Instagram account tied to the suspected gunman on Saturday,” and that “the account hadn’t been active for more than a year.”
Meanwhile, on Tuesday the U.S. House of Representatives posted a request for Watkins to appear before the Committee on Homeland Security.
“Experts have described 8chan as a platform for amplifying extremist views, leading to the radicalization of its users,” wrote committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, and Republican member Mike Rogers, in a letter to Watkins. “Americans deserve to know what, if anything you, as the owner and operator, are doing to address the proliferation of extremist content on 8chan.”
But experts are sharply divided over whether people like Watkins should be making those calls.
Chris Demaske, an associate professor at the University of Washington-Tacoma who specializes in free-speech issues, says Epik’s “decision to basically self-censor” points to one of the biggest problems with current internet policy — namely, that governments have been largely willing to leave the regulation of internet speech to private companies.
Demaske worries such a hands-off policy means that online communication, which is increasingly central to the modern democratic process, is being driven increasingly by commercial imperatives, not civic ones.
Corporations’ “job is not to promote democracy,” Demaske said. “At the end of the day, their job is to make money.”