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.
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.
See, 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.
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.