8chan Tells Congress It’s ‘Voluntarily’ Offline. What’s Next for the Message Board Favored by Mass Shooters
The owner of 8chan, a hate-filled message board favored by mass shooters, testified in a closed door meeting on Capitol Hill Thursday, where he defended the site and said it's "voluntarily" offline.
Jim Watkins, a self-described Army veteran, technology executive, and pig farmer who lives in the Philippines, appeared on Capitol Hill after the House Homeland Security Committee subpoenaed him last month, following a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. That case marked at least the third time in six months when a mass shooter posted his manifesto on 8chan.
Benjamin Barr, the attorney representing Watkins, tells Fortune that 8chan is "a platform for free speech, and of course that includes speech that many would find disgusting." The deposition on Thursday, he says, was an opportunity "to try to in a good faith effort to come to Congress and show them that 8chan is a good corporate citizen that has taken good faith steps to comply with lawful subpoenas."
In prepared remarks published online Wednesday night, Watkins says 8chan will come back online, "only when 8chan is able to develop additional tools to counter illegal content under United States law." That includes building a way to restrict access to parts of the site during emergency situations.
Watkins describes 8chan as "the only platform featuring a full commitment to free speech" and says "my company has no intention of deleting constitutionally protected hate speech."
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), ranking member, issued a joint statement following the closed-door deposition, saying Watkins "provided vast and helpful information" about the "structure, operation, and policies of 8chan and his other companies." A spokesperson for Thompson tells Fortune he has nothing more to publicly share at this time.
Less than two days after the August 3 shooting in El Paso, 8chan was knocked offline when Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince, the infrastructure security provider for the site, terminated services, calling 8chan a "cesspool of hate." Several infrastructure sites have also cut ties with 8chan, keeping it offline. Watkins says the site remains offline "voluntarily."
Watkins' testimony aims to show 8chan as a site that reacts quickly to law enforcement requests during emergency situations. He says 8chan has complied with 56 law enforcement requests so far this year, a number that he says has risen after the Christchurch mosque shootings in March.
In that case, the mass shooter posted his manifesto on 8chan, along with a link to a Facebook Live broadcast so people could watch and copy the footage of him killing 51 people. In April, the shooter who killed one person at a Poway, Calif. synagogue also shared his manifesto on 8chan. El Paso's shooting marked the third time in six months that a manifesto was shared on 8chan related to a shooting. Watkins was subpoenaed by Congress 11 days later.
During the aftermath of the El Paso shooting, Watkins spoke on video about 8chan and likened his website to "an empty piece of paper for writing on."
But that isn't what Fredrick Brennan says he had in mind when he created the image board in 2014. Brennan says he no longer has an affiliation with 8chan, and called on the site to be shut down after the El Paso shooting. Brennan had moved to the Philippines to work with Watkins, before cutting ties with 8chan in April 2016. In a tweet on Wednesday, he accused Watkins of "lying even before the hearing has begun."
The substance of Watkins' closed door testimony was not immediately shared on Thursday and comes toward the end of the congressional recess. The next steps for 8chan and Watkins include sharing supplemental information that was requested during the hearing, and perhaps another visit to Capitol Hill—ideally for a public testimony, according to Barr.
"He wanted this open today," Barr says. "[There's] nothing to hide and he'd like to show exactly what he's done."
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Android 10’s 7 most anticipated new features
—This new app puts deepfake technology in the hands of a mainstream audience
—Google hit with a record fine by the FTC for violating children’s privacy on YouTube
—A U.K court may have made police use of facial recognition easier
—Porsche unveils its first-ever electric car
Catch up with Data Sheet, Fortune's daily digest on the business of tech.