Amazon seeks to root out any ties to 8chan, as tech firms grapple with implications of extremist sites

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Amazon’s cloud powers vast swaths of the internet, so perhaps it was only a matter of time until the debate over blacklisting extremist sites ended up at the company’s feet. The Seattle tech company is looking into whether websites tied to extremism use any Amazon services.

The company is trying to find out whether any Amazon Web Services infrastructure is indirectly supporting 8chan through Epik, another Seattle-area company that provides hosting and domain services. Epik came under scrutiny this week for temporarily reviving 8chan, the website where a suspected shooter in El Paso, Texas, posted a racist manifesto before opening fire in a crowded Walmart. Epik later reversed the decision to host 8chan’s content, but remained the site’s domain registrar.

“8chan’s content is hate speech and is unacceptable according to our Acceptable Use Policy,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “Although 8chan is not hosted on AWS, we are working with their direct provider (Epik) to ensure that 8chan is not indirectly using AWS resources through any of our customers.”

The connection between far-right online communities and mass shootings has put a magnifying glass on the underlying technologies that enable those discussions. Over the past few days, the focus has been on smaller companies that have cut ties with sites that host extremist viewpoints. Now Amazon is confronted with a question that much of the tech industry has been wrestling with for years: Where do you draw the line between free expression and hate speech?

Background: The shooting in El Paso over the weekend marked the third time a suspected shooter published his intentions on the website 8chan. It was the last straw for Cloudflare, 8chan’s network provider. After getting kicked off the network, 8chan sought out Epik, because that company has helped similarly situated websites get back online.

Epik initially hosted 8chan but quickly hit a roadblock. Epik was using servers from a third-party, Voxility, and when Voxility spotted 8chan traffic moving through its network, it severed ties with Epik, taking both 8chan and Epik offline. On Tuesday, Epik said it would not provide web hosting services for 8chan going forward “due to the concern of inadequate enforcement and the elevated possibility of violent radicalization on the platform.”

Where Amazon comes in: Though the suspected shooter in El Paso used 8chan to spread his message, the shooting renewed interest in a number of websites where extremist views live, like Last year, the Epik agreed to host domain registrar services for Gab after GoDaddy dropped the site. GoDaddy severed ties with Gab because the shooter charged with killing 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue used the site to post anti-Semitic messages.

This week, Amazon learned it was hosting a Gab subdomain as a result of reporting from journalist Judd Legum. Amazon shut down the website, according to BuzzFeed News.

What Epik says: After Voxility cut ties with Epik, Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, asserted that Epik is also using AWS, OVH, and Linode.

Geekwire asked Epik CEO Rob Monster about the company’s use of AWS. He said Stamos’ tweet was not accurate.

“We have used them for years and have not changed how we use them in years,” Monster said via email Wednesday, referring to AWS. “They host one of our redundant DNS nodes and we have them as one of our remote backup sites.”

In a phone interview with GeekWire on Tuesday evening, Monster said 8chan paid Epik on Monday for domain registrations. A domain name search on ICANN shows that Epik is the registrar for Monster said Epik would help 8chan sell the domain names, if needed.

Big picture: From social media sites to cloud providers, internet gatekeepers are grappling with how to moderate hate speech while avoiding the appearance of censorship. When Cloudflare announced it was cutting off 8chan, the company’s CEO Matthew Prince said, “We continue to feel incredibly uncomfortable about playing the role of content arbiter and do not plan to exercise it often.”

It has put sites like Twitter and Facebook in a difficult position, too. They’re frequently under pressure to remove posts containing right-wing extremism while simultaneously fielding accusations of anti-conservative bias. President Donald Trump is particularly skeptical of how social media sites treat conservatives. The White House plans to host top tech companies to discuss the rise of violent extremism online this Friday, The Washington Post reports.