The bottom-feeding forum 8chan, which grew popular by embracing fringe hateful internet cultures, is having trouble staying online. After Cloudflare dropped its protection of the site yesterday, 8chan adopted the services of Bitmitigate, but soon lost that too as the company providing Bitmitigate with services dropped them. Deplatforming works, but it can be complicated, so here’s a quick explanation of what these pieces are and why we’re witnessing this hot-potato act in the wake of the latest tragic mass shootings.
(Update: Soon after I published this, Voxility made the events below much clearer with context I’ve added towards the bottom of the article.)
To put a website online, people generally need three things.
First, a name registrar. This is the company that officially owns and licenses to you the specific series of letters and numbers that make up your website’s name, like techcrunch.com.
Second, a domain name service. These do work in the background to turn requests, like putting facebook.com into their browser bar, into actions: finding the IP address where Facebook is and establishing a connection between that one and the user’s.
Third, an actual server. Your data has to physically be stored somewhere with a fat pipe to the internet so others can access it. Servers are usually “virtualized” in that you don’t really rent five computers somewhere but rather a certain amount of capacity on a huge shared server farm.
Increasingly a fourth piece is necessary: caching and denial-of-service attack protection. This is a service like Cloudflare’s, which sits in front of the website and sort of sifts the traffic so attacks are turned away and the website stays up even during other kinds of outages. It’s not required, but is highly recommended.
When 8chan lost Cloudflare, it was exposed to the full force of the internet, likely including DDoS and other attacks, and was brought offline. But it soon found a new caching service in Bitmitigate.
Bitmitigate is one of several related businesses that provide various hosting services, all flying under the banner of one Rob Monster. In a statement to TechCrunch, Monster said that his companies “fill the ever growing need for a neutral service provider that will not arbitrarily terminate accounts based on social or political pressure.”
As evidence of this, Monster’s Epik domain name and hosting service is the current refuge of Gab, the right-wing social network populated by those excommunicated from Facebook, Twitter and other services with robust hate speech and abuse rules. Same for Daily Stormer, the white supremacist news site and forum. If they aren’t breaking the law, Monster said, it’s up to the provider whether to host them, and he chose to host. That may change, though.
“We have also 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,” Monster wrote.
So 8chan went to Bitmitigate, but it wasn’t long before the forum had that rug pulled out from under them as well. Turns out that Epik and Bitmitigate were purchasing services from a larger service provider called Voxility.
If this sounds over-complicated, just think of it this way: A cafe needs to provide internet to its customers, so it buys a high-speed connection from an ISP. Then it provides access to that connection to its customers using its own little portal or control method, maybe so you have to buy a coffee before you can get online. This is a bit like that: Epik was reselling the services of Voxility at a markup to a specific set of customers. It’s a common enough thing online, but as we saw today, a bit risky.
Turns out Voxility wants no part of hosting 8chan, and after being alerted (by former Facebook CSO Alex Stamos) that one of its clients had decided to do so, it simply pulled the plug on Epik’s services; right now Bitmitigate, Daily Stormer and 8chan are all down. They deplatformed the platform.
I talked with Voxility’s VP of business development, Maria Sirbu, about the last day’s events. She first explained that Voxility has little visibility into its clients doings because it is essentially renting out server space, not providing direct-to-site services.
“We are more similar to AWS than Cloudflare; we put together infrastructure into custom packages, renting and selling hardware to provide to other customers,” she explained. “Once a server leaves Voxility we have no more access to it. It’s like renting a car — the renter doesn’t ride along with you, you rent it and then you can do whatever you want.”
Nevertheless the company does do some due diligence on its clients to make sure it isn’t renting to scammers, and when Epik came to Voxility a few months ago they appeared to be an ordinary hosting provider. They rented some servers and agreed to a standard usage policy contract — no criminal activity, no spamming, etc. In time Epik used not only its own IP address leased to it by Voxility, but some of Voxility’s own.
It was only a few weeks ago that the company was notified that Epik (via Bitmitigate) was hosting the Daily Stormer on Voxility-owned IPs. After investigating, they told Epik that the site was not allowed under the agreement the latter had made regarding what the servers they rented could be used for. Epik within hours had removed Daily Stormer from Voxility servers and the case was seemingly closed.
That is, until they received notice from Stamos that Epik was also the host of 8chan. After a few minutes of briefing themselves on the news, 8chan, the shootings, and so on, the company made a deliberate decision.
“When we realized it was the same customer, it showed that the Daily Stormer was not an exception, these sites were facilitating this,” Sirbu explained. “If we asked them to remove it, it would be a repeat of history with the Daily Stormer. So on purpose we avoided using the same procedure. We realized that there is no way we were going somewhere good with this customer — we don’t want to have any association with 8chan, or hate speech.”
So “it was a management decision based on prior history” to simply ban Epik from Voxility services.
Interestingly, although the Daily Stormer was supposed to no longer be on Voxility hardware, the ban seemed to take them down as well. Sirbu was not surprised, saying that it is difficult for them to do deep monitoring of sites hosted by third parties; all they knew was that the original Daily Stormer domain was reported and removed. But when it came back with a new TLD it would not trigger any alarms at Voxility — in fact, she said, it’s illegal for them to do blanket bans based on keywords or names, for instance automatically banning all domains with “stormer” in them.
“At some point in the last few weeks they must have switched the website’s name, the IP, the peering to Voxility and so forth,” she speculated. The investigation is ongoing but of course Epik is already gone.
The “problem” with bigger service providers is they like to limit their exposure to things like 8chan, which are bad optics waiting to happen. If you’re the host of a service to which mass murderers frequently post their pre-shooting screeds to an adoring audience of conspiracy theorists and incels, people might just take their business elsewhere. There’s no shortage of options.
So the larger these services get, the more likely it is they will have something in place to give them carte blanche to kick off or refuse service to sites and actors they believe to be bad business. It’s a bit sad that deplatforming hate has to have a business case, but for now let’s just be happy that case exists.
A hate-promoting site doesn’t just have to find someone who will provide each of the critical services listed at the start, but will provide them to a high-risk client for a reasonable price. That’s getting to be rather difficult.
As of this writing, 8chan is still down and Bitmitigate is still recovering from having its services yanked by Voxility. Who will host the hosts? Increasingly few internet services companies want to be involved with toxic internet subcultures and even real-life toxic cultures like white supremacy.
Sirbu noted that the response online to their actions has been mostly positive: “My team keeps informing me of what we get via Twitter. There are a few thousand comments, very nice ones, lots of thank you notes and sympathy. There are some trolls as well — people with two followers, addressing some very bad comments about our mothers, our daughters, all our relatives.”
“But we’re good,” she concluded. “We just want to disappear.”
While as many have pointed out this does create new problems, it also does a pretty good number on some of the problems we’ve already got. I’ll take that over inaction any day.
Update: 8chan is still offline but it’s operator, Jim Watkins, has now uploaded a video statement to YouTube in which he tries to deflect blame away from the site — dubbing it “a blank piece of paper”, and saying he hopes it will be back online soon.
Watkins also claims that the El Paso shooter did not upload a manifesto to 8chan — which appears to be false judging by this Bellingcat analysis (which includes a screengrab of the manifesto being posted to 8chan just before reports of the shooting first surfaced).
“As we’ve seen with two other mass shootings this year, the killer announced the start of his rampage on 8chan’s /pol board,” Bellingcat writes. “The poster also attached a four-page manifesto to the post, along with a document in his original post that included his name.
“While all of this could technically be an extremely elaborate hoax, it would require the poster to know the suspect’s name well ahead of time,” it adds. “Additionally, there is the fact that the post was made before any public reports of a shooting, and even longer before the name of the suspected shooter was released to the public, and included information that matched the attack (model of weapon, targeting a heavily-Hispanic area).
“This original 8chan thread was deleted almost immediately by site moderators, who by now have gotten quite experienced at pulling mass shooting threads from their website. The archived version of the post has only three responses. The first is an anon claiming that 8chan is a “board of peace” which does not condone violence. This phrasing is a meme among the anons; a mocking reference to statements that Islam is a “religion of peace”. The next poster after that said simply, “Every shabbat”, expressing his hope that mass shootings like this happen every weekend.”
Bellingcat also notes that while the original thread was removed quickly, “other anons have continued to post copies of the shooter’s post and links to his manifesto”.