Meet Rob Monster, The Self-Described 'Lex Luthor of the Internet'
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Should websites that host hate speech and conspiracy theories have a home on the Internet? There's a tech company outside Seattle that thinks they should, and it's become one of the most controversial players in the debate over the future of online speech. NPR's Bobby Allyn traveled to Sammamish, Wash., to talk to the man at the center of it.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: He lives at the end of a cul-de-sac in this woodsy Seattle suburb and welcomes me to his lakeside home.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
ROB MONSTER: Can I make you a coffee - cafe latte?
ALLYN: Yeah, that sounds good.
The man's name is Rob Monster. Yep, that's his real name.
MONSTER: If you wanted to cast a villain who was going to be the Lex Luthor of the Internet, Rob Monster is about as good as it gets.
ALLYN: For years, Monster has run a business called Epik. It buys and sells website names like diamond.com or 3d.com. There's big money in the world of coveted web domains. In 2018, Monster stopped being a low-key tech executive. That's when the world found out that the shooter charged with killing 11 people at the Pittsburgh synagogue had used the right-leaning social network Gab. In the fallout, Gab lost all of its Web support.
MONSTER: And 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 taken to de-platform gab.com.
ALLYN: So he reached out to Gab and helped them get back online. Now sites know if they become too radioactive for support providers, Epik will be standing by with a lifeline. Epik now supports the conspiracy theory website InfoWars, embattled conservative platform Parler, the largely unregulated YouTube alternative BitChute, the gun forum ar15.com and others.
MONSTER: 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?
ALLYN: But in the messy swamp of sites Epik does business with are conspiracy theories about the election, vaccines and mass shootings and a steady stream of bigoted content about Jews, women and people of color. Monster's libertarian approach concerns researchers who track hate groups online.
Michael Edison Hayden is with the Southern Poverty Law Center. He says hate speech permeates all corners of the Internet, including major platforms Facebook and Twitter. But he says the sites Epik is keeping alive are notorious for doing almost nothing about it.
MICHAEL EDISON HAYDEN: The difference is that there are people with terroristic ambitions plotting out in the open, producing propaganda that they seek to use to kind of encourage violence. And those are the type of websites Rob Monster is willing to pick up.
ALLYN: Monster says he has standards. For instance, Epik dropped the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer and severed ties with the hate-spewing image board 8chan. On the sites Epik does support, it's easy to find some pretty ugly and hateful content. But Monster has faith in the sites regulating themselves.
MONSTER: Epik is standing in the gap, trying to find that fruitful compromise that allows people to have the luxury to be able to ask questions, seek answers, while at the same time being a stakeholder in the rearchitecting of a better Internet where we can have civil conversation.
ALLYN: The sites Epik backs, though, are far from civil. Experts say some have been gathering places for white supremacists and have radicalized people. And the rhetoric has led to real-world violence. Case in point - the storming of the Capitol that was largely documented on sites Monster helps maintain, like Parler.
David Kay is an online speech expert at the University of California, Irvine.
DAVID KAY: So he can say they're just shock jocks, but what we actually see is real-world harm coming from the platforms. And so how much is, you know, somebody who is allowing that kind of content to be hosted - how much are they operating in real good faith?
ALLYN: And this really is the question. If you believe Monster, he just wants an open Internet, where the most incendiary and toxic content lives alongside everything else. Big tech playing Internet cop, he says, gives companies the levers to control what we see and don't see online. And he argues the crackdown has been overzealous. He points to Facebook and Twitter banning former President Trump.
MONSTER: 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.
ALLYN: In Monster's vision for the Internet, tech companies do not interfere with who can speak or what is said. But experts say when people's lives and democracy are on the line, speech with no regulations is not always a good thing.
Bobby Allyn, NPR News, Sammamish, Wash.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRIGHTBLACK MORNING LIGHT SONG, "EVERYBODY DAYLIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.