Two and a half months before extremists invaded the U.S. Capitol, the far-right wing of the internet suffered a brief collapse. All at once, in the final weeks of the country’s presidential campaign, a handful of prominent sites catering to White supremacists and adherents of the QAnon conspiracy movement stopped functioning. To many of the forums’ most devoted participants, the outage seemed to prove the American political struggle was approaching its apocalyptic endgame. “Dems are making a concerted move across all platforms,” read one characteristic tweet. “The burning of the land foreshadows a massive imperial strike back in the next few days.”
In fact, there’d been no conspiracy to take down the sites; they’d crashed because of a technical glitch with VanwaTech, a tiny company in Vancouver, Wash., that they rely on for various kinds of network infrastructure. They went back online with a simple server reset about an hour later, after the proprietor, 23-year-old Nick Lim, woke up from a nap at his mom’s condo.
Lim founded VanwaTech in late 2019. He hosts some websites directly and provides others with technical services including protection against certain cyber attacks; his annual revenue, he says, is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although small, the operation serves clients including the Daily Stormer, one of America’s most notorious online destinations for overt neoNazis, and 8kun, the message board at the center of the QAnon movement, whose adherents were heavily involved in the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Lim exists in a singularly odd corner of the business world. He says he’s not an extremist, just an entrepreneur with a maximalist view of free speech. “There needs to be a me, right?” he says, while eating pho at a Vietnamese restaurant near his headquarters. “Once you get to the point where you look at whether content is safe or unsafe, as soon as you do that, you’ve opened a can of worms.” At best, his apolitical framing comes across as naive; at worst, as preposterous gaslighting. In interviews with Bloomberg Businessweek early in 2020, Lim said he didn’t really know what QAnon was and had no opinion about Donald Trump.
What’s undeniable is the niche Lim is filling. His blip of a company is providing essential tech support for the kinds of violence-prone hate groups and conspiracists that tend to get banned by mainstream providers such as Amazon Web Services.
It’s almost impossible to run a real website without the support of invisible services such as web hosting, domain name registration, and protection against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which involve crashing a site by bombarding it with junk traffic. Getting banned by AWS, Cloudflare, or other infrastructure providers, as the Daily Stormer and 8kun have been, is a step beyond a ban from Facebook or Twitter. It puts the American far right on a short list that includes child pornographers and terrorist organizations such as Islamic State—groups that promote and incite violence and basically aren’t allowed to have websites. “Every time I see an article attacking social media companies—and they deserve it—I think it’s more important to go after the companies that are hosting terrorist material,” says Rita Katz, founder of SITE Intelligence Group, a nonprofit that tracks terrorist activity online. “There’s already a good recipe that was used for ISIS. Why don’t you use it on the far right?”
It’s tougher to keep a site such as the Daily Stormer offline as long as somebody like Lim is willing to support it. U.S. laws governing domestic extremism are less expansive than those focused on international terrorism, partly to protect the rights of U.S. citizens with unpopular political views. And even the big web-hosting companies have struggled to set consistent standards. While Cloudflare has refused to work with the Daily Stormer, it supports other sites peddling racism, including those for Stormfront and the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust. The overlap between Republican Party officials and the belief systems that sparked the Capitol attack, which started out as a Trump rally, can make it all the tougher to draw clear lines.
Voices from across the U.S. political spectrum have registered concerns about companies setting up litmus tests to ban groups from the internet. That said, the voices Lim supports tend to come from the same general neighborhood. He sought out Andrew Anglin, who runs the Daily Stormer, to offer the neo-Nazi free tech support. He says his largest customer is 8kun, and he has a personal relationship with Ron Watkins, the site’s former administrator and one of its key leaders since its inception.
Lim argues that the real political crisis facing the U.S. is not extremist violence but erosion of the First Amendment. He says that restrictions on online speech have already brought the U.S. to the verge of communist tyranny, that “we are one foot away from 1984.” After a moment, though, he offers a sizable qualifier: “I never actually read the book, so I don’t know all the themes of the book. But I have heard the concepts, and I’ve seen some things, and I thought, ‘Whoa! That’s sketchy as f---.’”
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