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Conservative social network Parler, home to countless posts threatening violence before the U.S. Capitol riots last week, was in dire straits. Outraged by the hate, vendors were pulling the plug on Parler’s tech infrastructure, eventually taking the service offline.
Under intense pressure, Parler switched the registration for its web domain—parler.com—to a company known as the right wing’s best friend online: Epik. Although the move didn’t stop the shuttering of Parler, it was another example of how Epik has, through its embrace of free speech, become the registrar of choice for a rogues’ gallery of websites.
In addition to Parler, Epik’s web domain customers include Gab, a social network for conservatives and, in many cases, their violent threats; Infowars, the home of far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones; and BitChute, a YouTube clone for the far right.
“It is becoming increasingly easy to demonize anyone who has different beliefs,” Robert Davis, a spokesman for Epik, says in a statement. “Until these freedoms and voices have been taken away, most will not realize the extent of what could be lost.”
But critics worry that Epik provides refuge to services that are popular with extremists. It gives extremists a megaphone to spread their hate and violence, they say.
The man behind the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018 that left 11 people dead, used Gab to post anti-Semitic images, conspiracy theories, and a final message that suggested he was planning a violent act. GoDaddy, Gab’s domain registrar at the time, quickly dumped it, as did Gab’s hosting service, temporarily taking Gab offline. But Gab then reregistered its domain with Epik, and it remains a customer today.
Michael Edison Hayden, senior investigative reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, condemns Rob Monster, Epik’s CEO, for doing business with extremist sites. Hayden says that Monster provided “a lifeline to what was unquestionably one of the ugliest things the Internet has ever seen” and that he “offers services to the most disreputable horrific people on the Internet.”
However, Davis says that the company opposes violence, harassment, and racism. He adds that Epik tries to work with the sites, which are ultimately responsible for creating safe environments, to help them fix content problems and that “no one is beyond redemption.”
“Anything that causes people to target another individual to create hardship based on their skin color or who they are, we hate it. It’s abhorrent,” Davis says.
In fact, Epik has cracked down on a small number of websites over the years. But they had to do a lot to fall from Epik’s good graces.
Over the past several years, Epik has dropped more than 40 sites, including a faction of the Ku Klux Klan and another white supremacy group, Davis says. The company also has denied services to the Daily Stormer, a message board known to host messages from neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and anti-Semites.
For a fleeting moment, Epik also did business with 8chan, a forum known for hosting extremist and violent content. But Epik banned the site almost immediately after it registered.
Epik was founded in 2009 by Monster, who previously worked as a global product development manager for Pampers. Beyond selling domains, the company also offers web hosting services and site building tools.
Monster never intended Epik, based in Sammamish, Wash., to be partisan, Davis says. He points to the fact that the company’s hosting and domain registrar services are used mostly by plumbers, doctors, and dentists.
Largely under the radar, Epik made headlines starting in 2018 when it agreed to register the domain of Gab and from its brief relationship with 8chan in 2019. Based on those episodes, many people now misconstrue the company as one that specifically caters to racists, terrorists, and hate speech, Davis says.
“It caused dozens of real racists to think they could come and find a home at Epik,” he says. “As a result, the last two years has just been us deplatforming dozens of individuals, because we have no tolerance for hate.”
Epik says it keeps Infowars’ Jones as a customer because he’s a celebrity who is offering his opinions, even if they’re controversial. Jones has previously promoted conspiracy theories including that Sandy Hook was a hoax, that Hillary Clinton runs an underground sex ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., and that Bill Gates aims to wipe out minorities through eugenics.
“I’ve never ever seen any of them get an abusive complaint that they didn’t take down instantaneously,” Davis says of services like Gab, which still hosts hateful comments today. “All of these groups have shown concentrated efforts to try to be better stewards of the community.”
Ray Vahey, CEO of BitChute, which features videos promoting far-right conspiracy theories including QAnon, says his service moved its domain to Epik from another provider late last year. One of the key factors for choosing Epik, he says, was that Epik promised it wouldn’t kick BitChute out.
“We moved the bitchute.com domain to Epik at a time when tech startups were being targeted and deplatformed by activists for daring to stand up to the Big Tech monopolization of social media,” says Vahey, taking a swipe at Twitter and Facebook for more aggressively policing their services, most recently banning President Trump. “We took their offer to reduce business risk.”
When it comes to Parler, Davis says the relationship is still new so Epik can’t judge whether the site will remain a long-term customer. In the meantime, Epik has been offering Parler executives advice, urging them to add more human moderators, improve their artificial intelligence to detect harmful posts earlier, and update their terms of service.
“Parler has to make these decisions for themselves,” Davis says. “We could become their host and put them online tomorrow, but if they’ve not engineered and fixed some of their issues…they won’t get a third chance.”
But Epik is certain that Big Tech shutting down Parler was wrong and chilling. The implication, according to the company, is that Big Tech is using its “monopoly power” to shut down services that promote political views they disagree with.
Says Davis in a statement: “The idea that 15 million people should suffer immediate service termination due to the actions of a few should frighten anyone with the capacity for logical discernment of truth and what it means for the future.”