The Epik rise and fall of a free speech champion

News & Politics

Epik, a provider of critical internet services, was once a bastion of free speech. But after being rocked by scandals, the company is under new ownership that wants nothing to do with its previously loyal customers. Its future is uncertain, as is free speech on the open web.

What Epik does

A website’s domain name — like blaze.com — is how you access or link to it. If a website loses a domain name, it becomes inaccessible to many and breaks existing links to that website.

Individuals and organizations operating websites lease those domain names from registrars. The best-known is GoDaddy, with Epik being another example.

However, the registrars are merely commercial front doors for a nonprofit organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

It’s similar to the arrangement between auto manufacturers and dealers. You don’t drive to the Ford factory or a Ford corporate office if you want a Ford Mustang. Instead, you visit a dealer that sells Ford vehicles. They buy the cars from the manufacturer, and you then buy the car from the dealer. Except in this case, you can’t actually buy the car, only lease it.

Understanding the difference between domain name registration and web hosting is important. A web host stores all the content of a website. A registrar doesn’t host any content; they just manage the record. Registrars often offer web-hosting services and vice versa, but having separate registrars and web hosts is common. For example, you might register a domain name with Epik but host the website’s content with GoDaddy.

The internet sours on free speech

For much of the internet’s history, free speech was a philosophical cornerstone best exemplified by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and one of its founders, the late John Perry Barlow. In 1996, Barlow penned “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” that laid out the guiding philosophy of what would now be called “free speech absolutism”:

Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.

Likewise, registrars were largely content-neutral. As long as you paid your bill and didn’t draw too much government attention, you could register a domain name and renew it perpetually without a second thought.

That consensus changed quickly in the wake of the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, “Unite the Right” rally, when many online service providers decided to cut ties with any individual or group seen as too right-wing. Some of the targets were legitimate hate groups, but many conservative voices were also lumped in. Perhaps the most notable example is Alex Jones’ “Infowars,” which was quickly banned from all popular platforms until its recent return to X under Elon Musk’s leadership.

One site caught up in the wave of bans was Gab.com, a “free speech” alternative to Twitter that officially launched in 2016 and immediately faced service denials due to its refusal to moderate content.

In the wake of the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting, Gab faced a wave of bans after it was discovered that the perpetrator, Robert Gregory Bowers, had an active profile on the site. Gab’s registrar, GoDaddy, asked Gab to transfer its domain elsewhere.

At the time, it didn’t seem Gab.com had anywhere to go. Enter Epik.

Epik makes a free-speech splash

Jorm Sangsorn/Getty

Epik was founded in 2009 by Rob Monster (yes, that’s his real name). In 1999, Monster founded Global Market Insite, where he was named Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2005 before the board ousted him in 2007. He retired at age 40 before founding Epik to pursue his interest in domain name trading.

Epik maintained a low profile in the online world until Monster reached out to Gab founder Andrew Torba to invite him to transfer Gab.com to Epik.

Monster champions digital sovereignty and free speech. In a blog post (that’s since been pulled) titled “De-Platforming is Digital Censorship. Blacklisting is Digital Shunning,” Monster wrote:

As the news broke, and as some elements in the mainstream media rendered their judgement, I embarked on my own search for truth. Along the way, I did have an opportunity to meet with the Founder of Gab, Andrew Torba, an entrepreneur who was willing to swim against the tide for what he believes is right, namely empowering netizens to discuss openly about matters of mutual interest with limited risk of censorship.

And thus, Epik’s reputation for being what Monster called “the Swiss Bank of Domains” was born.

Over the next few years, Epik became a safe haven for free-speech absolutists, especially those on the far right. It was the registrar for 8chan, AR15.com, BitChute, InfoWars, Parler, Patriots.win, and other sites that didn’t have a home on the internet.

Epik fail

In 2021, everything went off the rails. Epik was hacked by Anonymous, who stole and distributed data on millions of people — users and non-users alike. The total amount of leaked data exceeded 180 GB, a staggering sum. Users started to flee Epik for other registrars.

With Epik’s future already uncertain, Monster was forced out as CEO in 2022 after being accused of mixing company funds with the escrow funds of customers. However, he remained chairman of the board.

Brian Royce succeeded Monster as CEO, and he restated Epik’s commitment to free speech:

Epik will continue to stand for free speech. It is extremely important to me to see core values of freedom, truth and liberty reflected in all we do at Epik. I am concerned about free speech as I look at what is happening across America. People are actively trying to silence people like Joe Rogan, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock just for talking and telling jokes. More conversations, more speech, more debate—that is what makes people more informed and more compassionate.

However, Royce did not last long as CEO. According to his LinkedIn profile, he left the company in May 2023. After months of silence, the Epik X account sprang back to life to publicly accuse Monster of impropriety, ask him to resign from the board, and threaten to sue him. Those posts have since been deleted.

In recent weeks, Epik’s ownership seems to have changed hands again, and the X account has come back to life. Whoever is now running Epik has done a complete 180 from Monster’s free-speech philosophy.

Epik recently banned Kiwi Farms, a notorious forum for online trolls. Epik repudiated the user base that Monster had welcomed in a bizarre string of posts on X.

At this point, it’s hard to tell how many customers Epik can retain. After the hacking and financial scandals, all but the most die-hard or desperate transferred their domains elsewhere. With Epik pulling a 180 on its free-speech branding and posting bizarre messages on social media, the company probably has few potential customers left.

The problem with ‘alt-tech’

The Epik saga illustrates one of the problems when you make technological decisions based on ideology. A company might talk a good game about certain ideals only for that to go out the window the second the business plan or ownership changes. Google once promised not to be evil but abandoned that decision long ago. Reddit once prided itself on “free speech” only to become one of the most censor-happy megaliths on the web.

The same has now happened with Epik. Epik was always slightly harder to use than the more popular registrars, but many users stuck to it due to its dedication to free speech. What many of those users got in return was their information — and perhaps even their money — stolen and for them to get stabbed in the back.

Ultimately, it’s best to treat our technology like any other tool. When you need a circular saw, you might prefer a DeWalt or Makita, but that choice doesn’t define you as a person. Either way, you handle that tool cautiously because it’s just as likely to harm you as help.

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