‘Lex Luthor of the internet’: Meet the Washington man keeping far-right websites alive
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Often times, when websites flooded with hate speech or harmful disinformation become too radioactive for the internet, the websites turn to a company for a lifeline.
This company is run by Rob Monster, a 53 year old Dutchman.
“If you wanted to cast a villain who was supposed to be the Internet’s Lex Luthor, Rob Monster is as good as it gets,” he joked in a recent interview at his lakeside home in the former lumbering community of Sammamish, Washington outside of Seattle.
Rob Monster, CEO of Epik, stands in the back yard of his home in Sammamish, Wash.
Provided by Rob Monster
Monster’s website services company, Epik, which calls itself the “Swiss Domain Industry Bank”, has remained quite modest for years, buying and selling popular names like Diamond.com and 3D.com.
That changed in 2018 after 11 people were killed in a shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Shortly before the massacre, the alleged killer had published anti-Semitic messages on the right-wing social network Gab. Gab’s domain registrar GoDaddy dumped it and the page went dark.
Until Monster entered.
“I looked at this and said, ‘You know what? I don’t think there was an appropriate process in place regarding the decision to remove Gab.com from the platform,'” said Monster.
Gab came back to life thanks to the help of Epik that Gab added to their customer base.
Fast forward to today. Epik supports conspiracy theory website InfoWars, the competitive conservative platform Parler, the largely unregulated YouTube alternative BitChute, the weapons forum AR15.com, and a rabid Trump supporter website called Patriots.win, previously known as The Donald.
Spend a few minutes on these websites. Conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, vaccines, and mass shootings aren’t hard to find, let alone a steady stream of bigoted content about Jews, women, and people of color.
Monster says he’s pushing back against “culture abandonment” and big tech.
“If someone wants to walk through a messy swamp in search of the truth, who should we decide that they shouldn’t have the opportunity?” Said monster.
Needless to say, many people disagree. While hate speech pervades every corner of the internet, including mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter, what stands out is Michael Edison Hayden of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which persecutes hate groups, that the websites that Epik supports stand out.
“The difference is that there are people with terrorist ambitions who openly plan and produce propaganda to encourage violence,” he said. “And that’s the kind of website that Rob Monster is ready to take on.”
Monster on link to neo-Nazi page: “It’s unfortunate”
Monster describes himself as a Christian libertarian, not an absolutist of free speech. There are light lines he won’t cross, he says.
The hateful website 8Chan wanted to partner with Epik in 2019 after the web hosting company Cloudflare shut down. While 8Chan announced that it had taken refuge in Epik, Monster soon resigned, citing the “possibility of violent radicalization on the platform” following mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Tex.
Epik has also been linked to the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer. In 2019, Epik bought the cybersecurity company BitMitigate, which had served The Daily Stormer. Monster claims that when Epik realized this, the company ended its relationship with the website.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Monster of Epik’s connection with The Daily Stormer. “The biggest cost of getting BitMitigate wasn’t the amount of money we paid to buy the technology, but the entanglement.”
But its self-proclaimed limits become muddy when tested.
Andrew Anglin, the white supremacist founder of The Daily Stormer, has more than 17,000 followers on Gab, a website that supports Epik.
When asked about it, Monster declined.
“I don’t know if this is actually him or his deputy,” said Monster.
Monster then described the leaders of the white supremacists as “shock jocks” who should not be taken seriously.
“I believe this content is to some extent unnecessary and flammable, and in large part it doesn’t need to be available to people on the Internet,” said Monster. “But it is the decision of our customer organizations.”
However, this type of content can lead to physical violence, says David Kaye, an online language expert at the University of California at Irvine. Case in point, the US Capitol storm was largely documented on websites hosted by monsters like Gab and Parler.
“He can say it’s just ‘shock jocks’ but what we’re actually seeing is real damage coming from the platforms,” he said. “How much does someone cost to allow this content to be hosted in good faith?”
Kaye added, “It often comes down to whether the platform has a content moderation policy in place that is designed to protect the life and rights of individuals.”
“If it has the policy and it doesn’t implement it, that’s a problem,” he said. “If the directive doesn’t exist, that’s a problem.”
What makes a website dangerous?
Parler was taken offline by its web hosting service Amazon Web Services shortly after the uprising. It still has to come back.
While Epik Parler offers domain registration, it can also host Parler. Monster wouldn’t comment on why Epik doesn’t.
“What I’m going to tell you is that they have had a disproportionate number of abuse reports that have gone unprocessed. As a result, they have left themselves open to people using their platform for purposes that may not have been the original intent of those responsible, inevitably means that we’re not just taking this site offline, we’re going to burn it down? “said Monster. “I don’t know, but I think the site can be redeveloped so that it can better govern itself.”
When tech companies play internet cops, they are abusing their power to control what we see and don’t see online. He refers to the ban on former President Donald Trump through Facebook and Twitter.
“It is one thing to be detained. It is another thing to be suspended. It is another thing to be sent to a penal colony for the rest of your life,” said Monster.
However, experts studying online language say that when public safety and democracy are at stake, unrestricted language is not as virtuous as it sounds. Algorithms on major social media platforms often magnify disinformation and other harmful content and present them to people who may never have found them otherwise.
Edison Hayden of the Southern Poverty Law Center says some of the most harmful outposts on the internet couldn’t exist without epic.
“Nobody says Rob Monster goes out there and makes terrorist threats himself, but if he doesn’t want to be associated with that brand he can certainly show up and say, ‘Absolutely, I don’t want to do anything with this material,” said Edison Hayden. “But he doesn’t do that.”
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