Online extremists remain online despite real-world consequences

My latest Techspotting segment for KITV where Maleko McDonnell and I discuss banning hate sites in the wake of devastating mass shootings in the United States.

Q: In the wake of the latest mass shootings, we’ve heard a lot about 8chan. What is 8chan?

A: 8chan, or ‘infinite-chan,’ is a message board that spun off from another message board called 4chan. You may remember that 4chan was previously the standard-bearer for white supremacists and pedophiles and other undesirable communities. Well, it turns out even 4chan had limits, and during a controversy called ‘GamerGate,’ some users felt that any moderation was evil, and left for a new site with even fewer rules called 8chan.

Q: Websites like 4chan and 8chan are known for extremist views and have been cited by suspects in mass shootings as places of inspiration. Why are sites like these so hard to bring down?

A: Part of the problem is the nature of the internet itself, distributed and self healing, so that attempts by one or many parties to cut off a site are solved automatically. It’s a smart network that sees a block as a problem to route around. Secondly, websites have protections under a federal law called Section 230, which basically shields them from liability over things their users post on their site. It protects Facebook, it protects your local newspaper, it protects my blog, and unfortunately it protects sites like 8chan.

Q: But 8chan was taken offline for quite a while this week? How did that happen?

A: 8chan is owned and operated by an American expat in the Philippines, and by living outside the U.S., sites like these have some shields against American law enforcement. But Cloudflare, a popular service that helps keeps websites online when they’re under attack dropped 8chan as a customer, and when they moved to a new service, that service provider was dropped by its service provider. So 8chan became a bit of a hot potato that nobody wanted to be near after the news on Monday.

Q: But chances are 8chan and 4chan and other fringe sites will eventually find a home online?

A: Technology can protect voices that are being suppressed by totalitarian regimes, but it can also protect voices of hate. We are seeing more ‘deplatforming,’ where Facebook and Twitter are taking action against hate speech. But even if a community is rejected from all mainstream platforms and services, it can set up shop on the ‘dark web,’ where it only takes a couple of extra steps to find them.

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