Gab Server Subpoenaed By Pennsylvania Attorney General

Nov 8, 2018
Originally published on November 12, 2018 9:30 am

The Internet server company that hosts the controversial social media network Gab has been subpoenaed by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the office confirmed.

Gab is a social media site that has been criticized for providing a platform for white nationalism and anti-Semitism. The suspect in the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings last month was a Gab user.

In the days after the shooting, several companies, including cloud host Joyent, domain registrar GoDaddy, and digital payment companies Stripe and PayPal, cut ties and suspended Gab's accounts. This forced the site to shut down for more than a week.

The company that got Gab got back online is called Epik, which is the Internet server that is now hosting Gab. Epik's move triggered the investigation by the Pennsylvania attorney general.

Robert Monster, CEO of Epik, says he didn't make the decision to host Gab's network lightly. In a statement, he wrote that he believes in Gab CEO Andrew Torba's ability to be a "responsible steward" and warned against silencing opinions on the Internet.

"These days there are many kinds of online content that some people find objectionable," Monster wrote, pointing out the need for a balance between free will and personal responsibility.

"In the case of Gab.com, there is a duty to monitor and lightly curate, keeping content within the bounds of the law."

Joe Grace, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania attorney general's office, has confirmed that a subpoena was issued to Epik. But he declined to comment further, citing the case as an ongoing investigation.

NPR has reached out to Epik and Gab. Epik declined an interview.

Gab was thrust into the spotlight last month, because shortly before the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue, the suspect Robert Bowers posted angry comments about a Jewish nonprofit on Gab. He wrote, "Screw your optics - I'm going in."

Torba, Gab's CEO, has continued to defend the site as a platform for free speech.

In an interview last month, Torba told NPR that Gab does have a policy of removing speech that is threatening. But he also said that what the synagogue shooting suspect wrote didn't sound like a direct threat to him.

NPR's Jasmine Garsd contributed to this report.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Several new social media sites have popped up as alternatives to Facebook and Twitter. They advertise themselves as censorship-free, but some are also accused of harboring hate groups. One of those sites is called Gab. And it looks a lot like Twitter. It's under scrutiny after one of its users posted an anti-Semitic rant and then allegedly went on a deadly shooting spree at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. NPR's Jasmine Garsd has this report on what keeps these sites in business.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: In the hours after the Pittsburgh shooting, one after another, tech companies like GoDaddy and PayPal dropped Gab, forcing it offline. Brian Hughes at American University, who studies the alt-right's presence on the Internet - he says this is why social media sites like Vote (ph) and Gab aren't hugely successful. Most third-party vendors just don't want to be linked to the hate groups that are often on them.

BRIAN HUGHES: When there are these big controversies - like, say, a domestic terrorist using your platform - DNS hosts like GoDaddy decide that they don't want to do business with you anymore. And you're forced to find an alternative who's maybe less reliable.

GARSD: And there's something else - a successful social media platform requires that a critical mass of people be on it. What's the point of shouting your opinion to a couple of hundred thousand followers who agree with you when you could be trolling the whole world on Twitter?

HUGHES: So this really creates a winner take all scenario where there can be only one Twitter. There can be only one Facebook.

GARSD: Nevertheless, about a week after the synagogue shooting, Gab was back online thanks to hosting site epik.com. Epik was subpoenaed by the attorney general of Pennsylvania. The CEO of Epik hit back, warning about the dangers of silencing opinions on the Internet. That's the same view held by Matthew Prince, the CEO of a company called CloudFlare. It protects Gab from cyberattacks. Prince works with thousands of mainstream sites. When it comes to the controversial ones, he says there's not much money to be made.

MATTHEW PRINCE: Oftentimes, they use just the free version a service. If they do pass, they pass not much at all.

GARSD: So why even bother? Prince talks about something that happened last year. After a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., he cut ties to a controversial client - the neo-Nazi publication The Daily Stormer. And Prince has said he immediately regretted that.

PRINCE: So while I find something like The Daily Stormer absolutely vile and reprehensible and disgusting, it becomes very dangerous for deep infrastructure companies like us to be effectively silencing one side or another.

GARSD: Brian Hughes from American University says Prince's dilemma might be short-lived. He thinks very few of these sites which provide a platform for hate groups will be around for too long.

HUGHES: Most of them will be gone in a matter of years.

GARSD: But that's not necessarily good news. Hughes and other experts worry that in another generation or so hate groups will migrate completely to the dark web, where they can't be found using traditional search engines or browsers.

HUGHES: And it wouldn't be subject to the same kind of oversight from journalists and the people that we typically expect to keep an eye on these things for the health of our democracy.

GARSD: He says ultimately it boils down to this - would you rather hate speech and groups be out in the open or hidden from view but still among us? Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

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