8chan owner defends platform in testimony before Congress

8chan owner defends platform in testimony before Congress
© Getty Images

The owner of the anonymous messaging board tied to a string of mass shootings this year testified on Capitol Hill on Thursday, offering an adamant defense of his website to House staffers behind closed doors.

Jim Watkins, the owner of 8chan, participated in a congressional deposition after the House Homeland Security Committee subpoenaed him last month.

ADVERTISEMENT

The deposition, which apparently lasted between 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., was attended by committee staffers, Watkins and his lawyer.

"We want to thank Mr. Watkins for his cooperation today," House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Homeland Security chairman calls on new Trump aide to reestablish cyber coordinator House Democrat urges Trump to address online extremism at UN MORE (D-Miss.) and ranking member Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersHillicon Valley: 8chan owner defends platform before Congress | Facebook launches dating feature | New York City sues T-Mobile | Top NSA cyber official names ransomware as 2020 threat | Blue Dog Dems urge action on election security 8chan owner defends platform in testimony before Congress Conservatives lash out at CNN for hiring Andrew McCabe MORE (R-Ala.) said in a statement later in the afternoon. "He provided vast and helpful information to the Committee about the structure, operation, and policies of 8Chan and his other companies."

"We look forward to his continued cooperation with the Committee as he indicated his desire to do so during today’s deposition," the committee leaders added.

Most members were not on Capitol Hill at the time of the deposition, which was held at an undisclosed location at the end of the summer recess. It is typical for depositions, which amount to congressional "fact-finding" missions under oath, to be held in private.

Watkins was accompanied by his attorney Benjamin Barr — who has counted controversial right-wing group Project Veritas among his former clients — according to 8chan's official Twitter account.

The night before the deposition, Watkins tweeted a link to his prepared testimony, in which he framed 8chan as "the only platform featuring a full commitment to free speech." He continually claimed his website adheres to the First Amendment, though internet platforms are not bound by the constitution.

"My company has no intention of deleting constitutionally protected hate speech," Watkins wrote. "I feel the remedy for this type of speech is counter speech, and I'm certain that this is the view of the American justice system."

8chan — which has been tied to three mass shootings by alleged white supremacists this year alone — is currently offline after several of its web infrastructure services cut ties with the forum weeks ago.

The website is widely known as a breeding ground for the online radicalization of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Before it was taken down, the site's notorious "/pol/" board was flooded with messages from anonymous users praising white supremacist mass shooters and spreading bigoted content.

The website branded itself as the "darkest reaches" of the online world, and touted its logo, "Embrace Infamy" — even after several 8chan users committed violence in the real world.

According to Watkins's testimony, 8chan has complied with 56 law enforcement requests in 2019.

The site was thrust into the spotlight in March, when a gunman allegedly posted an anti-immigrant manifesto to 8chan before murdering 51 worshippers at a pair of mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Since then, the website has been implicated in two more mass shootings, including last month's attack in El Paso, Texas. Police said the 21-year-old suspect in that shooting allegedly posted a hateful manifesto to 8chan before opening fire in a Walmart near the U.S.-Mexico border, killing 22 and injuring dozens of others.

Watkins said 8chan is offline "voluntarily."

"The site may come back online, but only when 8chan is able to develop additional tools to counter illegal content under United States law," he wrote.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which tracks online extremism, applauded the committee for holding a deposition.

"This deposition is an opportunity to hold to account Jim Watkins, who has shown little interest in stopping white supremacists from using 8chan as a location for 24-7 hate rallies," the ADL's CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, said in a statement.

"We appreciate that Congress is working to address the seriousness of hate, harassment and extremism online and prioritizing finding meaningful ways to address them," he said. "We hope this deposition will help illuminate further what the government can do to counter online extremism on platforms like 8chan that risks inciting violence in our communities."

Staffers with the House Homeland Security Committee have been working over the August recess on legislation to confront the growing issue of domestic terrorism. The bill could create a bipartisan commission of experts tasked with drawing up recommendations to deal with the "intersection of homeland security and social media," a committee spokesperson told The Hill.