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Police block the entrance to an El Paso Walmart where a shooter killed 22 people. The suspect posted a racially-charged manifesto on 8chan shortly before the shooting. (Shutterstock Photo)

The Seattle region may have a reputation as a liberal enclave but it’s also home to a safe haven for right-wing extremism. A virtual one anyway.

Bellevue, Wash.-based web service provider Epik Inc. once again provided relief for a website tied to far-right extremism over the weekend. Late Sunday night, Epik temporarily helped 8chan get back online after others blacklisted the forum due to its ties to a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.

It’s a story that raises big questions about free speech and whether tech companies have a responsibility to police online extremism.

Here’s the series of events connecting the tragedy in El Paso to Epik.

  • Over the weekend, a 21-year-old man accused of killing 22 people in a Walmart published a manifesto laden with racist rhetoric to 8chan, a corner of the internet where extremism frequently finds a home.
  • Network provider Cloudfare cut ties with 8chan following the shooting, claiming the forum “has repeatedly proven itself to be a cesspool of hate” in a statement.
  • 8chan sought refuge in Epik, a company that has helped similarly-situated websites get back online.
  • It worked, but only temporarily. Epik rents servers from a third-party called Voxility. When Voxility realized 8chan traffic was moving through its network, Epik got the boot, preventing 8chan from getting back online.

“We do not tolerate hate speech in any form,” said Maria Sirbu, Voxility’s VP of business development. “This is a firm stand from our team and we will not reinstall services for Epik/BitMitigate under no circumstances.”

BitMitigate is a subsidiary of Epik. More on that below.

Epik founder Rob Monster told GeekWire that 8chan “showed up late Sunday night, unannounced and unsolicited.” He said that Epik is still deciding whether or not to continue providing services to the site.

Epik founder and CEO Robert Monster. (Photo via DigitalTown)

“Ultimately, we believe that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’ and that exposing hateful ideas is necessary if they are to be defeated,” he said in an email. “However this must absolutely occur within the bounds of the law.”

Epik has made a habit of servicing websites that other providers rejected. Last year, the company agreed to host domain registrar services for Gab.com after GoDaddy dropped the site. GoDaddy severed ties with Gab because the shooter charged with killing 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue used the site to post anti-Semitic messages.

Earlier this year, Epik acquired BitMitigate, a company that provides protection to websites from distributed denial of service attacks. BitMitigate made headlines in 2017 when it rescued the neo-Nazi publication The Daily Stormer. Cloudflare had previously been providing protection to The Daily Stormer but dropped the site following a white supremacist rally in Virginia where a woman was killed.

Cloudflare says it reluctantly took action against The Daily Stormer and 8chan. “We continue to feel incredibly uncomfortable about playing the role of content arbiter and do not plan to exercise it often,” said Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince in a blog post.

Prince said that 8chan’s repeated involvement in mass shootings ultimately led Cloudflare to cut ties with the site. He referred to shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Poway, Calif. where perpetrators used 8chan to spread their messages.

“Even if 8chan may not have violated the letter of the law in refusing to moderate their hate-filled community, they have created an environment that revels in violating its spirit,” Prince said.

Though Epik has not made a decision on its future relationship with 8chan, Monster says his company’s “services fill the ever growing need for a neutral service provider that will not arbitrarily terminate accounts based on social or political pressure.”

“We enter into a slippery slope when we start to limit speech that makes us uncomfortable,” he said. “The censorship we’ve seen across major social media platforms as of late has created a vacuum.”

8chan’s website was still down at the time GeekWire published this story. The company’s founder told The New York Times that the site should be shut down.

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