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A defiant 8chan vowed to fight on, saying its “heartbeat is strong.” Then a tech firm knocked it offline

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/5/2019 Drew Harwell
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: People hold up their phones in lieu of candles at an interfaith vigil for victims of the mass shooting in El Paso on Saturday that left at least 20 people dead. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images) © Mario Tama/Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty I People hold up their phones in lieu of candles at an interfaith vigil for victims of the mass shooting in El Paso on Saturday that left at least 20 people dead. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The battle over white-supremacist and extremist content online surged into the tangled pipelines of the Web on Monday as jockeying among rival tech firms knocked the 8chan message board and other hate sites offline.

It was unclear how long they’d stay unavailable to their followers as several players in the little-seen world of Internet service firms dug in to prevent the sites’ reappearance.

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Abandoned by its key partner Cloudflare for its “lawlessness” in the wake of the El Paso mass shooting, 8chan briefly disappeared from the Web early Monday before reappearing with the help of a sympathetic ally: BitMitigate, whose cybersecurity services also helped keep the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer online after Cloudflare dropped it in 2017.

But by Monday afternoon, both 8chan and the Daily Stormer plunged into darkness when Voxility, a tech firm that has leased servers to BitMitigate, announced that it would no longer provide those services. The site for Vancouver-based BitMitigate was also dropped offline.

It’s “totally against our policy,” Maria Sirbu, a Voxility executive, told The Washington Post. “As soon as we were notified ... we proceeded with (completely) removing" the company from their network.

She said Voxility was making a “firm stand” and urged that many other Internet authorities should take more action in “keeping the Internet a safer place.”

Shortly after noon, Ron Watkins, 8chan’s administrator, said that the site was down and that it looked like its content-delivery network, provided by BitMitigate, was “under attack.” Minutes later, he said that BitMitigate had instead been “deplatformed for hosting 8chan.”

The war drew attention to the role played by the Internet’s hidden infrastructure in deciding what ideas and content can circulate online. Most of the key players in Monday’s fight are unknown to consumers, but they run some of the critical elements supporting the modern Web.

BitMitigate is owned by another company, Epik, a firm based outside Redmond, Wash., that bought the service earlier this year. Epik, a hosting and domain-name firm that gained notoriety after backing the far-right site Gab, has loudly criticized what it calls “digital censorship” and “organized efforts to de-platform and incapacitate practitioners of lawful free speech.”

Epik chief Rob Monster wrote Monday that the company had not solicited 8chan’s business but was now helping manage some of the site’s technical needs and was further evaluating whether to offer it other services, including a defense against cyberattacks."We enter into a slippery slope when we start to limit speech that makes us uncomfortable," Monster wrote.

Related video: How 8chan became a platform for mass shooters (CBS News)

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The services provided by Cloudflare and BitMitigate form a key element of the Internet’s hidden backbone, helping sites boost their speed and stay online. They also help guard against vigilante strikes such as distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks, in which hackers flood a site with traffic to knock it offline. 

For 8chan, a site that has attracted no small number of online enemies through its years of promoting racist, sexist and offensive content, those services have helped ensure its survival. The site is largely independent from the other advertising, hosting and technical giants that help form the infrastructure of other websites, and who can sometimes exert pressure on objectionable clients.

BitMitigate’s rules offer wide leniency to its clients: “We leave law enforcement to the experts and will not stop service to any of our clients unless by final court order,” the company says in its terms of service. The site has held itself up as a bastion of free-speech protections for sites too objectionable for others to support. BitMitigate is a “non-discriminatory” provider of “bulletproof DDoS protection with a proven commitment to liberty,” the company says on its Twitter account.

But online data show that BitMitigate has only a fraction of the server capacity of Cloudflare. Its dependence on renting from providers such as Voxility to help stay afloat, tech experts said, makes it vulnerable to pushback from other companies that may disagree with its indirect support of extremist speech.

Three mass shootings this year, including the El Paso massacre on Saturday, began with the gunmen distributing hate-filled screeds on 8chan, which has become a notorious refuge for some of the Web’s most vile content.

The site faced a firestorm of public criticism on Sunday, including from founder Fredrick Brennan, who told The Washington Post that the site was a haven of “domestic terrorists” and needed to be shut down. On Sunday night, the site saw its service terminated by Cloudflare, whose chief Matthew Prince said the site had proven to be a “cesspool of hate.”

8chan’s administrators began moving the site to BitMitigate’s service, posting alerts calling the rocky service that users were experiencing during the transition "just a bump in the road” and that posters could expect minimal downtime as the servers updated around the world. The site’s “nerve center,” which shows the board’s active threads, included a message: “The heartbeat of 8chan is strong.”

Some 8chan posters voiced fear and resignation over what they said was the site’s imminent demise. One board leader encouraged readers to migrate to a new refuge on a sister site “due to prevailing conditions of general reactionary rampancy and the unfavorable present conditions of this site.”

But many other 8chan posters said they were defiant against what they described as another attack in the online culture wars.

"I am skipping work tomorrow to sit on MS PAINT all f---ing day to create a red pill for normies," wrote one poster, referring to a driving principle of the site's most extremist "politically incorrect" board: creating memes that are so shocking or persuasive they will convert mainstream audiences to their side.

“WHEN 8CHAN GOES OFFLINE, EVERYONE’S GOING OUTSIDE AND SHOOTING,” another poster wrote. Those posts, and all others on 8chan, were minutes afterward knocked offline.

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