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After a Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C., left five people dead, major technology companies moved swiftly to cut connections with right-wing extremist groups and anyone deemed associated with them. Within days, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Google had suspended accounts linked to former President Donald Trump and the right-leaning social network Parler.
The post-riot purge raised the question: Would conservative voices be broadly silenced online? The answer depends on where you look.
In Parler’s case, just keeping its website online has been a challenge. After Amazon’s web hosting platform booted Parler from its servers, the Twitter-like social media network turned to one of the few companies willing to help—Epik, a small U.S.-based web host and registrar. Epik also happens to serve other right-wing clients, including news outlet One America News, fringe video site BitChute, and social media platform Gab.
Less than a week after getting kicked off-line, Parler brought back its website with help from Epik. But then the condemnations rolled in—against Epik.
Gizmodo dismissed Epik as a ‘harbor for deplatformed cesspools.’
Tech site Gizmodo dismissed Epik as a “harbor for deplatformed cesspools,” and the Telegraph labeled it “the registrar keeping extremists online.” After PayPal dropped Epik last October, Epik senior VP of communications Robert Davis said industry insiders banned his company from attending this year’s annual industry trade show.
Website registrars perform a boring but important job: They sell domain names (for example, www.parler.com) to anyone wanting a live website and officially register the domains to ICANN, the world’s internet directory of web addresses.
“All we are is a domain registrar,” Davis said. “We’re just here so you can pay $10 and get ‘birthday.com.’ Epik hasn’t given up its policy on who it does business with. I have shut down more Nazis than any other web host out there.”
Davis admits Epik works with organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has designated hate groups. I confirmed Epik is the registrar for at least two: Euro Folk Radio and American Renaissance. But I also found that several more SPLC-designated hate groups have websites registered with Epik’s larger competitors, including GoDaddy, Namecheap, and Tucows. That suggests tech companies have deplatformed groups on a case-by-case basis, rather than equally across the board.
The SPLC’s hate group list includes not just white supremacist groups such as Proud Boys but also Christian groups. (The latter often make the list because of their disapproval of homosexual relationships.)
Online donation platforms banned some groups and permitted others. PayPal, for example, recently ended its relationship with GiveSendGo, a Christian crowdfunding site that the Proud Boys and Kenosha, Wis., shooting suspect Kyle Rittenhouse have used. But PayPal still collects donations for several Christian groups SPLC has labeled anti-LGBT hate groups, including the Pacific Justice Institute, the Pray in Jesus Name Project, the Center for Family and Human Rights, and the Public Advocate of the United States.
Public Advocate, a Virginia-based group that promotes traditional family values and produces what President Eugene Delgaudio calls “low-budget political theater,” has called President Joe Biden’s election victory fraudulent. The group was suspended from Twitter for two months and forced to take down YouTube videos for its election claims. Delgaudio says he’s prepared to go elsewhere, if necessary, whether for social media, hosting, or fundraising services.
“We know there’s censorship and we’re experiencing this censorship,” he said.
That may explain why his group maintains accounts on numerous social media platforms. At the bottom of Public Advocate’s website are 16 different social network icons—from right-wing-friendly platforms such as Telegram, BitChute, Rumble, Gab, and Parler, to more mainstream platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The group takes donations from PayPal and fundraising platform Piryx, keeps backups of videos, and relies on old-fashioned forms of crowdsourcing like direct mail and in-person events.
Delgaudio says he recognizes it may only be a matter of time before tech companies threaten to deplatform him again.