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After NZ shooting, Epik has a Monster PR problem

Kevin Murphy, March 21, 2019, Domain Registrars

Domain name registrar Epik.com has come under fire from prominent domain investors and others after CEO Rob Monster suggested that video of the recent mosque shootings in New Zealand, which he hosted on an Epik service and shared on social media, was a hoax.

Domainer-bloggers including Shane Cultra, Konstantinos Zournas, and DNPlaybook.com have questioned Monster’s decision, and one of his own senior staffers, former DomainNameWire contributor Joseph Peterson, took to a domainer forum to in parts criticize and defend his boss.

Cultra was particularly harsh in his criticism this week, calling for domainers to move their domains out of Epik and for his friend, Epik director Braden Pollock, to remove himself from the board.

He wrote: “I would like to think that any respectable domain investor remove their domains from Epik… Rob Monster’s agenda has no place in our industry”.

DNPlaybook wrote that Monster has become “Facilitator of Hate and Promoter of Conspiracies”.

Other domainers have written that they have removed, or will remove, their domains from Epik, though Monster wrote earlier this week that the impact on its business so far has been minimal.

Epik is an ICANN-accredited registrar with about 400,000 gTLD names under management at the last count. It’s almost doubled in size over the last two years.

The company and its CEO have been subject to criticism for months over their decision to provide services to web sites that enable the promotion of far-right ideologies such as white supremacism and Nazism.

But the latest row kicked off on March 15, when Monster used his personal Twitter account to share a link to the self-shot, first-person video of one of the terrorist attacks at a mosque in Christchurch.

Fifty people, all Muslims attending Friday prayers or in the vicinity of the mosques, were killed by the same person during the attacks.

The first attack was live-streamed on Facebook from a head-mounted camera. Apparently viewed live by fewer than 200 people, copies were nevertheless widely circulated on social media and elsewhere.

The copy of the video linked to by Monster was hosted by Epik-owned privacy services provider Anonymize.com, on an “effectively uncensorable” file-sharing service the company is currently developing.

In a subsequent tweet, Monster threw doubt upon whether the footage was real, writing: “Shell casings simply vanish into thin air. Etc. It looks like low budget CGI”.

Anyone with a grain of common sense who has seen the video will tell you that Monster is clearly talking absolute bollocks here. It’s not a fake.

Monster’s Twitter account has since been deleted. According to Peterson, Epik’s director of operations, Monster deleted it himself. Reading between the lines, it appears he was pressured to do so by his staff, including Peterson.

Monster has not yet deleted — and is in fact still actively using — his @epik account on Gab.com, the Twitter clone often used by far-right activists who have been banned from or choose not to use Twitter due to their views.

A March 15 post on Gab by Monster links to a copy of the Christchurch killer’s rambling “manifesto”, again hosted on anonymize.com. This link is still live, but I’ve redacted it in the screen-cap below, which shows Monster effectively using the manifesto to promote the forthcoming Anonymize service.

Monster on Gab

I’ve been unable to confirm whether Epik is still hosting the video of the attack, though there are reports that it was taken down a matter of hours after posting. (UPDATE 1816 UTC: the video is in fact still live on the Anonymize service).

Epik and Monster drew attention last November when Monster publicly offered to become the registrar for Gab.com, after the domain was suspended by GoDaddy.

Monster at the time said the move was to protect freedom of speech online.

Epik again attracted attention last month when it acquired BitMitigate, a denial-of-service protection startup which has been providing services to unapologetic Nazi propaganda site The Daily Stormer since August 2017, when Cloudflare told the site to GTFO.

It’s also taken on the domain business of video hosting site BitChute, which is often used as a refuge for political vloggers (including some on the far right) who have been demonetized or banned by YouTube.

For these reasons, in January Epik attracted the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-racist group based in the US. The SPLC wrote that “Epik is cornering the market on websites where hate speech is thriving”.

The post, and other news reports, strongly hint that Monster’s own political views might be more aligned with those of his customers than he cares to admit.

Monster naturally rebuts these suggestions, calling the SPLC post “highly defamatory and inaccurate”. In one of his most recent posts on Namepros, before his staff asked him to back away from the public square for a while, he wrote:

As for those members of the domain community who have taken the opportunity this week to rebuke me for allowing free speech to continue on the Internet, please know that I am neither seeking publicity or controversy. I am of sound mind. I am not a Nazi, an anti-semite, a homophobe, a misogynist, a bigot, or a racist. I believe love and understanding will overcome hate and divisiveness.

The future of the domain industry is being determined in 2019. Censorship, WHOIS privacy, sinkholing, DDoS, deplatforming, demonetization, unpersoning, are all symptoms of the disease which is a relentless desire by the few to dictate the narratives and choices to be consumed by the many.

Peterson has also denied that his boss harbors secret extremist views, in a series of lengthy, nuanced posts (starting here) on Namepros this week.

He writes that Monster has a “weird conspiratorial streak” and a natural inclination to believe in “false flag” conspiracy theories. He doubts the official story on 9/11 and believes the moon landings were faked, Peterson said. Monster is also a “Bible-believing Christian”, according to his Gab profile.

Peterson also writes that a significant portion of Epik’s employees, including some in important roles, are Muslims. He writes that he was “appalled” by Monster’s decision to post the video, but added:

But to infer that he did this because he hates muslims and condones murder is not just simplistic; it is LUDICROUS. One person murders 30+ muslims. The other person hires them and works with them closely on a daily basis. To equate these 2 is simply wrong. Whatever the reasons Rob felt it necessary to re-publish a link to content others had decided to censor, hatred of muslims was NOT the reason.

He goes on to say:

I object to Epik — the team I work with and the customers we look after — being portrayed falsely as some epicenter of “hate speech” or the alt right. We are not. We are a domain registrar and marketplace with a wide range of services. We are a company whose boss has taken controversial (and in some ways courageous) steps to protect free speech. Unfortunately, that same boss has stepped on that message with some very bad PR moves. When Rob does that, it irritates me to the point of exasperation. And I tell him so.

According to Peterson, Monster and his wife came under attack last year with a leafleting campaign in his local neighborhood, denouncing him as a Nazi.

He suspects this kind of behavior may have caused his boss to “double-down” on exactly the same kinds of activities that invited the controversy in the first place.

Whatever the reason, Epik certainly has got a PR problem on its hands right now.

I doubt this is the last we’ll hear of it.

Berkens sues Twitter over hacked account

Kevin Murphy, December 28, 2017, Gossip

Blogger and high-profile domain investor Mike Berkens of TheDomains.com has sued Twitter for allowing his account to be hacked and failing to rectify the problem.

As industry Twitter users will no doubt already be aware, Berkens’ account @thedomains came under the control of an unknown hacker on Friday last week.

The avatar was changed from the The Domains logo to the face of an East Asian man and tweets from the account began to sound out of character.

Despite the attack being reported to Twitter by Berkens and others (including yours truly), the account does not yet appear to have been returned to its proper owner.

In a complaint filed yesterday in Northern California, Berkens claims Twitter “still has done nothing to substantially acknowledge, investigate or respond to Plaintiffs’ complaint, and restore Plaintiffs’ access to the Account.”

The suit, which also names (as Does) the unknown hackers, has nine counts ranging from computer fraud to trademark infringement to negligence and breach of contract.

Berkens wants his account back, as well as damages. He’s currently tweeting from @thedomainscom as a temporary workaround.

The complaint, kindly donated by George Kirikos, can be read here (pdf).

More on my Twitter.sucks reg

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2015, Domain Registries

If you were reading on Friday, you’ll know that I brought about the registration of the domain twitter.sucks and took charge of a web site hosted at that address.

I hinted that there was a little more to the story, but couldn’t get into it.

The first part of the story is here.

What I didn’t mention was that twitter.sucks was in my This.sucks account for probably less than 10 minutes before I removed it.

I have no beef with Twitter and no particular desire to moderate a .sucks discussion forum.

After removing twitter.sucks from my account, I noticed that This.sucks again gave me the option to “register” a free .sucks domain.

So I experimentally “registered” thisdotsucks.sucks too.

Again, the domain started resolving, showed up in Whois, and the associated WordPress site went live within seconds.

At this point, I discovered that I had admin privileges for both twitter.sucks and thisdotsucks.sucks sites simultaneously.

Suspecting that I may have found a bug that would allow anyone to register an essentially unlimited number of free and potentially trademark-matching .sucks domains, I informed This.sucks of my findings in the interest of responsible bug disclosure and ended my blog post prematurely.

Late Friday, This.sucks spokesperson Phil Armstrong told me that it wasn’t a bug after all.

He said that the company allows one “do-over”. So if you register a name for free, then delete it, you get another one for free.

He also said that WordPress admin privileges for domains removed from user accounts expire after a period (I had admin rights for the twitter.sucks web site for roughly 48 hours after I deleted it from my account.)

Right now, the domain twitter.sucks still exists, registered to This.sucks as before, as does the associated web site. I have no idea if another user has taken over its administration or if it’s in some kind of limbo state.

All I know is that it’s nothing to do with me any more.

How I just registered Twitter.sucks for free in just five clicks

Kevin Murphy, December 18, 2015, Domain Registries

This morning, I caused the registration of and was given control of a web site at twitter.sucks.

I didn’t pay a thing, though I did — by checking a box linked to hidden terms and conditions — promise to pay $10,000 if I was later determined to be working for Twitter.

Ordinarily, registering a .sucks domain would have cost me over $200.

The controversial This.sucks service (which may share ownership with .sucks registry Vox Populi) has gone live and is giving out 10,000 .sucks web sites for free.

Users, who can sign up merely by connecting their Facebook or LinkedIn accounts, are able to cause This.sucks to register names on their behalf.

They are then immediately given limited control over a WordPress blog hosted at that domain, though not to the associated name servers or Whois records.

It’s actually quite a slick, streamlined service, that could quite easily dramatically increase the number of active .sucks site overnight.

But it’s going to cause no end of headaches for trademark owners.

Earlier this week, you may recall DI reporting that This.sucks seemed to have registered the .sucks names matching the brands of Twitter, Adobe, Goldman Sachs and Justin Timberlake.

It seems that this may have been a test of the This.sucks service, as I was tipped off last night that twitter.sucks was no longer registered.

Here’s how I got control over the twitter.sucks web site in just FIVE clicks.

This.sucks has a domain availability query box, just like a regular registrar. I looked up “twitter”:

This.sucks 1

Seeing that the domain was available, I went through the two-click process of allowing This.sucks to use my Facebook login credentials.

This.sucks 2

Obviously, while I used a genuine Facebook account, I see no reason why I couldn’t have used a fake one.

After connecting, I was bounced back to This.sucks and was given the ability to register twitter.sucks in a single click.

This.sucks 3

I also had to check a box confirming:

I’m a free-thinking individual, not a corporate yes-man. I agree to the terms and conditions and any penalties which may apply.

Clicking either of the T&C links, or hovering over the question mark, will introduce you to the concept of a $10,000 penalty.

This.sucks 4

That’s right — by causing This.sucks to register a .sucks domain, you agree to pay $10,000 if the company decides, in its “sole discretion” that you are affiliated with the matching trademark owner. The terms state:

Site Runners on this.sucks must be individuals who have no affiliation with the subject matter of the Site. You can’t be running the Site on behalf of a company, entity or anyone who is the subject of the Site.

As a Site Runner you agree that if you are found by this.sucks, in our sole discretion, to be in violation of this principal, that a $10,000 USD payment to This.sucks will immediately become due and payable. You will also no longer be a Site Runner with us. Your Site may also be given to a different Site Runner to run.

If you think a Site is being run by someone acting on behalf of the subject of the Site, please email us at whistleblower@this.sucks

Given that Twitter’s lawyers are probably going to hate me for doing this, I felt pretty confident in accepting this risk.

In addition, at this point This.sucks has not asked me for any payment information. If they want $10,000 off of me, they can take a hike, I figure.

So I clicked the “Register Now” button.

Bam! In under 10 seconds the domain name twitter.sucks existed in DNS, in Whois, and there was a simple WordPress web site there that I, to a significant extent, controlled.

The domain is registered to This.sucks, which makes it clear on its web site FAQ that its users — or “Site Runners” — do not actually own the domains they cause to be registered.

This.sucks 6

As administrator of the WordPress site, I am able to create and update blog posts as well as change the appearance by switching between a limited selection of themes. I can also edit and delete comments and manage registered users.

There’s a little bit more to my story — which I cannot get into for now.

For the moment, it must suffice to say that this is a whole new world for famous brand owners.

They can either pay the roughly $2,000 required to defensively register their brand in .sucks, or they can try to sneak through a free (or $0.99 per month) registration at This.sucks at the risk of being billed $10,000 if they get rumbled.

Should brands get a new gTLD round to themselves? Twitter thinks so

Kevin Murphy, October 20, 2015, Domain Policy

Twitter wants to get its hands on some new gTLDs but doesn’t want to wait.

Having missed the first round of new gTLD applications back in 2012, the company is now keen on getting .twitter and other strings both branded and generic.

“We’re interest in round two,” Twitter trademark counsel Stephen Coates said as ICANN’s business constituencies met the board of directors today.

“We have several interesting opportunities to develop around that space,” he said. “We are interested in both brands and generics.”

The problem for Twitter, and every other would-be gTLD applicant, is that ICANN isn’t even talking in broad terms about when the next round will be.

The absolute minimum that must happen is that ICANN must complete a review of round one, focusing on “Competition, Consumer Trust and Consumer Choice”. This CCT review is mandated by ICANN’s Affirmation of Commitments with the US government.

Almost three years after the first round opened, the volunteer team that will carry out the CCT review has not even been assembled yet.

There are a number of other factors that may or may not wind up on the critical path — such as reviews of rights protection mechanisms and security and stability at the DNS root.

Coates said he would like a “bifurcated” review process leading to two separate second application rounds.

“I would advocate for bifurcating the review process, which I think is very important, especially around RPMs,” he said. “But also bifurcating the round process, treating dot-brands differently than generic names.”

I think this outcome is unlikely.

Application rules that give preference to one type of application over another invite exploitation. It happened in the 2003 sponsored TLD round and it’s happening with “community” and “Specification 13” applications in the current round too.