When websites flooded with hate speech or harmful disinformation become too radioactive for the Internet, the sites often turn to one company for a lifeline.
That company is run by Rob Monster, a 53-year-old Dutch-American.
“If you wanted to cast a villain who was going to be the Lex Luther of the Internet, Rob Monster is about as good as it gets,” he joked during a recent interview at his lakeside home in the former logging community of Sammamish, Wash., outside of Seattle.
Monster’s website-services company Epik, which calls itself “the Swiss bank of the domain industry,” kept a fairly modest profile for years by buying and selling popular names like Diamond.com and 3D.com.
That changed in 2018 after a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue left 11 people dead. The alleged killer had posted anti-Semitic messages on the right-leaning social network Gab shortly before the massacre. Gab’s domain registrar, GoDaddy, dumped it and the site went dark.
Until Monster stepped in.
“I looked at that and said, ‘You know what? I don’t think there was a lot of due process in terms of how the decision was made to de-platform Gab.com,'” Monster said.
Gab sprung back to life, thanks to the help of Epik, which added Gab to its client base.
Fast forward to today. Epik supports the conspiracy theory website InfoWars, embattled conservative platform Parler, the largely unregulated YouTube alternative BitChute, the gun forum AR15.com and a site for rabid Trump supporters called Patriots.win, previously known as The Donald.
Spend a few minutes on these sites, conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, vaccines and mass shootings are not hard to find, not to mention a steady stream of bigoted content about Jews, women and people of color.
Monster says he’s pushing back against “cancel culture” and Big Tech.
“If somebody wants to go through a messy swamp in their search for truth, who are we to decide that they shouldn’t have the opportunity to do that?” Monster said.
Needless to say, many people disagree. While hate speech permeates all corners of the Internet, including mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Michael Edison Hayden of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, says the websites Epik props up stand out.
“The difference is there are people with terroristic ambitions plotting out in the open, producing propaganda that they seek to use to kind of encourage violence,” he said. “And those are the kind of websites Rob Monster is willing to pick up.”
Monster On Link To Neo-Nazi Site: ‘It’s regrettable’
Monster describes himself as a Christian libertarian, not a free-speech absolutist. There are bright lines that he will not cross, he says.
The hate-spewing site 8Chan sought to work with Epik in 2019, after the web-hosting company Cloudflare terminated its service. While 8Chan’s announced it had found refuge at Epik, Monster soon backed away, citing “the possibility of violent radicalization on the platform” in the wake of mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Tex.
Epik also has been linked to the Neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer. Epik, in 2019, purchased the cybersecurity company BitMitigate, which had been providing service to the Daily Stormer. Monster maintains that when Epik realized this, the company ended its relationship with the site.
“It’s regrettable,” Monster said of Epik’s connection to The Daily Stormer. “The greatest cost of acquiring BitMitigate was not the amount of cash that we paid to buy the technology, but the entanglement.”
Yet his self-professed boundaries become squishy upon examination.
For instance, on Gab, a website Epik does support, Andrew Anglin, the white supremacist founder of the Daily Stormer, has more than 17,000 followers.
When asked about this, Monster demurred.
“I don’t know if that’s actually him, or his proxy,” Monster said.
Monster then went on to describe white supremacist leaders as “shock jocks” who should not be taken seriously.
“I believe that to some extent this content is unnecessary and inflammatory in nature and to a large extent doesn’t actually need to be available to people on the Internet,” Monster said. “But it’s the decision of our client organizations.”
Yet that sort of content can encourage physical violence, says David Kaye, an online speech expert at the University of California, Irvine. Case in point: The storming of the U.S. Capitol was largely documented on sites Monster helps maintain, like Gab and Parler.
“He can say they’re just ‘shock jocks,’ but what we actually see is real world harm coming from the platforms,” he said. “So how much is somebody who is allowing that content to be hosted operating in real good faith?”
Kaye added that, “it often comes down to, ‘Does the platform have a content moderation policy that is designed to protect individual lives and individual rights?'”
“If it has the policy and doesn’t implement it, that’s a problem,” he said. “If it doesn’t have the policy, that’s a problem.”
What makes a website dangerous?
Parler was knocked offline by its web-hosting service Amazon Web Services shortly after the riot. It has yet to come back.
While Epik provides domain registration to Parler, it also has the capability to host Parler. Monster would not comment on why Epik is not doing so.
“What I will tell you is that they had a disproportionate number of abuse reports that went unprocessed. And as a result, they left themselves wide open to people using their platform for purposes that maybe weren’t the original intention of the people who manage it. Does that necessarily mean that we not only take that site offline, but we burn it to the ground?” Monster said. “I don’t know, but I think the site can be rehabilitated so it could be more self-governing.”
When technology companies play Internet cop, he argues, they abuse their power to control what we see and don’t see online. He points to Facebook and Twitter’s banning of former President Donald Trump.
“It’s one thing to be sent to detention. It’s another thing to get a suspension. It’s another thing to be sent to a penal colony for the rest of your life,” Monster said.
Yet experts who study online speech say when public safety and democracy are on the line, unfettered speech is not as virtuous as it sounds. Algorithms of major social media platforms often magnify disinformation and other harmful content, putting it before people who may never have found it otherwise.
Edison Hayden with the Southern Poverty Law Center says without Epik, some of the most noxious outposts on the Internet may not exist.
“No one is saying that Rob Monster himself is going out there and making terroristic threats, but if he doesn’t want to be associated with this brand, he can certainly step up and say, ‘absolutely, I don’t want anything to do with this material,’ Edison Hayden said. “But he’s not doing that.”