James Watkins, the owner of the anonymous online forum 8chan, told the Congressional Committee on Homeland Security today that his company will not remove the hate-filled posts his platform is best known for.
“My company has no intention of deleting constitutionally protected hate speech. 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,” his prepared testimony reads.
8chan, a spinoff of the forum site 4chan (and, like its clone, often full of anonymous commenters’ vile remarks), has been linked to three acts of mass white supremacist violence in recent months. In one of those incidents, a gunman in El Paso, Texas posted his racist manifesto there before opening fire in a Wal-Mart and killing 22 people.
The Committee on Homeland Security issued Watkins a subpoena in August to question him about his efforts to prevent such attacks. The closed hearing took place today.
Watkins said in his testimony that critics have overblown the problem of hate speech on 8chan and that his company facilitates free speech in oppressive contexts like dictatorial regimes. The site is currently offline after both its domain registrar and the cybersecurity company Cloudflare said they would no longer do business with it.
“Contrary to some rather noisy folks that my company is law abiding and we understand that the restriction of some speech is necessary,” he said. “Those across the oceans may feel it necessary to stifle the voice of minority opinions. This is not what I intend to do.”
Though Watkins views seem extreme in his specific context, mainstream power players in the technology industry echo his views. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in a recent letter that “preserving an open platform is more important than ever” and that the video site allows anyone’s uploads within its terms of service, no matter how offensive.
Watkins is at odds with his forebear, though. In the wake of the shootings, the founder of 8chan, Fredrick Brennan, told a number of outlets that he wished he could shut down his creation. He exerts no control over the site now.
“There is no way I can go back and uncreate 8chan,” he said to NBC News. “If I could, I would, but there is no way to do that. So the main way I have dealt with the guilt is to go on the offensive.”
Following Watkins’ appearance before Congress, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) released a joint statement thanking Watkins for his cooperation.
“He provided vast and helpful information to the Committee about the structure, operation, and policies of 8Chan and his other companies,” the committee’s chairman and ranking member said.
“We look forward to his continued cooperation with the Committee as he indicated his desire to do so during today’s deposition.”