Where Do Sites Like 8Chan Go If No One Wants To Host Them?
According to Noah Feldman, a professor of law at Harvard University, no matter how vile 8chan and sites like it are, there’s an inherent problem with taking them offline. Sure, 8chan may be a gathering spot for followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory and white supremacists, egging each other on to commit mass murder and cheering with every uploaded manifesto and news of gory shootings, he grants, but if extremists and conspiracy theorists have nowhere to post their ideas, we’re infringing on their right to free speech.
Of course, no one can legally force Cloudflare, Tucows, and Voxility to host 8chan against their will because these companies do not want the liability of technically supporting such a site, and Feldman readily admits that. If we were to force any of the private entities that manage the internet as we know it to host 8chan or sites like it, we’d also be infringing on their right to free speech. Refusing to support certain ideas is just as much a part of free speech as expressing them and it would be an unreasonable burden to require them to do business with a site they see as an expensive risk with very little reward. But what happens to ideas no one wants?
Here’s perhaps the most interesting thing about the internet. No idea, however repugnant, can ever be completely chased off the web, even if every last respectable host and domain registrar refuses to deal with it. As the internet became more user friendly and widespread, users began to think of having a domain name and being searchable by Google or — who am I kidding, basically just Google — as the prerequisites of having a site and hosting content. But in reality, as long as you have a server and an internet connection, you can host and broadcast whatever you want, you’ll just be harder to find and the search for your site may involve onion routing and anonymizing browsers.
Granted, downloading a new and different browser with flashy features we take for granted disabled and typing 3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion instead of firing up your default browser and just entering duckduckgo.com into the address bar is a lot less user friendly. Even less user friendly is having to scavenge online wikis and forums for links to the content you actually want or have to contact other people to be given a link. But considering what stews in the far corners of the dark web, that’s partially by design. A popular study on the subject says that 83% of dark web traffic wanders into child pornography and nearly a quarter ends up on virtual drug markets. The denizens of these sites may not necessarily want random users there in the first place.
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And it gets even darker among the roughly 40,000 hidden sites where 8chan would feel right at home among the repository of human depravity beyond the reach of any web host able to pull the plug or a search engine to delist them. It’s a realm where no rules apply, and behind a firewall and an onion routing, you can be, say, or buy anything you want. However, this is also a place where people suffering from the brutality of totalitarian regimes can talk to the outside world and smuggle information in or out of their country, and how journalists can avoid having their online activities tracked in nations hostile to the free press.
This is why you shouldn’t necessarily assume that every one of those sites is a credit card and identity theft ring, a den of pedophiles, or murderers and terrorists plotting their next rampage. But all that noted, the spaces of extremists who want to “fight the invasion of their homeland” or blow up infidels are out there and even if non-savvy users will have to jump through some hoops to reach them, nothing can shut them down short of physically locating the servers on which these sites and forums live and turning them off, gaining administrative access and deleting the site and its databases, or taking them out with a computer virus that can trick someone relatively skilled at server setup and maintenance.
With all this in mind, let’s return to Feldman’s question. Should we take down 8chan and sites like it considering the free speech implications? Well, as we’ve just seen, taking it down is just not possible, we can only banish it from the easily accessible, indexed, searchable “surface web” and drive it into the internet’s deep underbelly, making the second part of the question seem a bit moot. But at the same time, a deep web 8chan wouldn’t be invulnerable and could eventually be taken down by law enforcement agencies like numerous child porn sites, carder rings, and drug markets. So the question really becomes whether the Department of Justice should contact its partners in the Philippines to pull the plugs on 8chan’s servers.
To answer that, we need to weigh the academic argument against the real world one. How do we deal with the Paradox of Tolerance? Do we want to be so focused on the absolute right to say anything that we tolerate the manifestos of mass murderers and attempts of extremists to incite each other to kill? Do we want to treat this as a counter-terrorism operation and either spy on their activities or actively try to disrupt them? Or do we want to make companies responsible for what content they host and really hope the relevant laws aren’t abused to censor political opposition by wanna-be authoritarians down the line? Whenever you have a government trying to regulate its definition of free speech, you run the risk of that exact problem.
Today law enforcement may kill 8chan for trying to plan the next shooting spree. But tomorrow it might be MSNBC for “being fake news and insulting the president” under some vague provision in a hurriedly scribbled new statute which could technically be interpreted to mean that saying the wrong thing about a politician is incitement of violence or treason. Just consider the horror show of hearings on supposed political biases of search engines and social media in the House of Representatives and ask yourself if you trust those involved not to abuse their power.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers and we may be stuck with rabid terrorists and terrorist sympathizers until they commit a crime due to the nature of how the internet works and how hard it is to police it. Even more importantly, we have to realize that there will always be those with views we find disgusting and repugnant to put it mildly, and that cultural forces can make certain people more prone to violence and extremist beliefs, and they’ll always find some way to connect to enablers and recruiters into further bowels of self-radicalization. We should step up and tag extreme and questionable content as such, and we should take action when their talk turns into criminal acts. But the only long-term cure is cultural.
We have to identify the social and cultural triggers that tend to breed behavior that helps breed extremism and warning signs that their fanaticism is escalating and is spilling over into threats, and eventually actions. Aside from their targets, there’s little difference between the mechanics of ISIS and white supremacism and the rallying cry “death to the infidels” comes from a similar place as “How do you stop these people? Shoot them!” Understanding how someone goes from normality to extremism, who encourages them to do it and how, and disrupting the steady cycle that keeps them extreme and ready to lash out at any moment is what’s necessary.
Likewise, today, a lot of disaffected young men, perfect fodder for terrorists to mold into soldiers to man the front lines of their war with civilized society, are falling into rabbit holes guided by the already hysterical tenor of right-wing media and entertaining YouTube propagandists who seem sympathetic to their plight. If they couldn’t simply direct their potential new recruits to places like 8chan and neo-Nazi Discord servers without requiring them to learn the ins and outs of onion routing, encryption, and anonymization, we’d at least set the barrier to entry into their inner circle at least a little higher than passive clicking.
But disrupting their ability to indoctrinate, communicate and coordinate is just a small part of the equation, and all we can really do is make it more difficult and require a lot more effort and tech savvy. What will really help is to make sure that a would-be extremist backs out of terrorist communities and tries to find meaning in something else. It’s not going to be easy to cool off millions of bloodthirsty fanatics around the world, but we have to rise to the challenge and figure out which group of them will be most responsive to one in a whole arsenal of approaches. And it’s not going to be helped if politicians keep fanning their fear and anger, then playing dumb when a mass shooter commits an act of terror.
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