8chan owner testifies to Congress about extremism on the site

The owner of infamous imageboard site 8chan, James Watkins, is appearing today in Washington, DC to provide evidence to the House Committee on Homeland Security about the site. Though the live session will take place behind closed doors, Watkins submitted written testimony ahead of his appearance that hints at the direction the hearing—and 8chan’s future—may take.

The committee requested the hearing about a month ago, following the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, that resulted in 22 deaths. “This is at least the third act of white supremacist extremist violence linked to your website this year,” the committee noted in a letter to Watkins (PDF), referring also to the April mass shooting at a synagogue in California and the March mass shooting at a mosque in New Zealand. “Americans deserve to know what, if anything, you, as the owner and operator, are doing to address the proliferation of extremist content on 8chan.”

“Contrary to some rather noisy folks,” Watkins said in his written response (PDF), “my company is law abiding and we understand that the restriction of some speech is necessary.” That said, he added, “My company has no intention of deleting constitutionally protected hate speech.”

Users with “uneducated, ill-informed, and conspiratorial opinions” are welcome to share “poorly formed opinions, popular conspiracy theories, or hateful monologues” on 8chan, Watkins said, with curation “left to thousands of moderators and fellow users with the hope that better reason and enlightened wisdom will ultimately prevail.” All boards on the site operate under exactly one global rule, he added: “Do not post, request, or link to any content that is illegal in the United States of America and do not create boards with the purpose of posting or spreading such content.”

That rule seems to be more of a loose guideline at best, as 8chan developed its initial reputation as a haven for child pornography before becoming a hotbed of harassers and home to violent white supremacist extremists.

“8chan’s record demonstrates that it is a responsible platform,” Watkins concluded.

8chan founder Fredrick Brennan, who has in recent months attempted to distance himself from the site, told NBC News he expects Watkins to “lie through his teeth” during questioning.

“Voluntarily” offline

“At this time, 8chan is offline voluntarily,” Watkins told Congress. “The site may come back online, but only when 8chan is able to develop additional tools to counter illegal content under United States law.”

“Voluntarily,” however, appears to be doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. Cloudflare, which formerly provided CDN and DDoS protection services to 8chan, dumped the site as a customer in August, with CEO Matthew Prince saying at the time that 8chan “has repeatedly proven itself to be a cesspool of hate.”

It managed to resurface a few days later, after securing Web services from Epik brand BitMitigate. The entities running the actual servers off of which Epik was operating, however, including Voxility, Amazon, and Linode, all said in August that 8chan’s content would not be welcome on their platforms, and the site has not returned to operation since.

The site has “limited contact with Silicon Valley technology companies or their staff,” Watkins wrote. 8chan parent company NT Technology has contracts with “Arin, Tucows, and Epik,” he said, and otherwise the company “has had no contact with any companies or staff in charge of alternative social-media websites.”

NT Technology’s registered agent in Nevada, Laughlin Associates, told local media in August it was cutting ties with NT.

Site administrator Ron Watkins said on Twitter in August that 8chan will remain offline at least through today, the date of the hearing, and he asked users to be “respectfully vocal” in contacting lawmakers.

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