Argument

Why Are Moscow and Beijing Happy to Host the U.S. Far-Right Online?

Deplatformed extremist groups are turning to providers in authoritarian states.

A Trump supporter with a "White Pride" tattoo
A Trump supporter with a "White Pride" tattoo a faces counterprotesters during a pro-Trump rally in Tujunga, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, on Aug. 21, 2020. Kyle Grillot/AFP via Getty Images

The founder of neo-Nazi rag the Daily Stormer had some advice for the people who ran Parler, after the app was purged from the internet last week: Ask China or Russia for help.

Parler, which had become a refuge for those supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump and conspiracy theorists deemed too extreme for Twitter and Facebook, became inaccessible after it was banned from Google and Apple’s app stores and then by Amazon’s hosting services for failing to curb violent and threatening content on its platform during the insurrectionist riots at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.

“I just want to make this 100% clear,” Andrew Anglin wrote on the Daily Stormer soon after Parler was taken down. “There is no internet company that will support your freedom of speech if the media says you shouldn’t have freedom of speech that is not either Chinese or Russian.”

Both China and Russia are highly adept at censoring any information they deem unacceptable. China, in particular, operates the most extensive and sophisticated censorship apparatus the world has ever seen. That both have seemingly become safe harbors for extremist Western content reflects a disturbing and growing alliance between the far-right and authoritarian governments.

Anglin would know. His noxious website was hounded off the web in the aftermath of the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Anglin had used the website to praise the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer, prompting a number of organizations including website infrastructure provider Cloudflare to terminate its services, taking it (briefly) offline.

Keeping a website online requires the cooperation of a long list of often invisible services including transit providers, web hosting and content delivery networks, authoritative and recursive domain name system (DNS) providers, domain registrars, registries, and internet service providers. The role of platforms at the top of this technical “stack” such as Facebook and Twitter in failing to moderate speech is well established, but it’s only recently that some of these subterranean services have been forced to recognize that keeping toxic websites afloat is not a neutral act.

The Daily Stormer, as well as other extremist, white nationalist platforms, have forged a path back onto the internet that relies on a dwindling number of holdouts—free speech absolutists in the West but also, crucially, shady opportunists in China and Russia. Their ultimate aim is to create websites that are not dependent on services from mainstream web hosting and website protection companies, making it difficult for them to be knocked offline. It’s a path that Parler is starting to head down now, courtesy of the Russian-owned website protection company DDoS-Guard.

A key part of the Daily Stormer’s strategy has been to get its DNS service from China. A DNS is a service that maps the string of numbers that make up an IP address into human-friendly domain names like foreignpolicy.com (kind of like a phonebook for the internet). The Daily Stormer’s DNS has been, as Ars Technica first noted in 2019, “spread over a large number of individual IP addresses, all of which are served from China.”

A Whois search shows that the domain name used by the Daily Stormer was registered through the company Eranet International Limited, a Guangdong-based company that was established in 2000 and incorporated in Hong Kong in 2005 under Todaynic.com, Inc. The company is an accredited registrar with both the California-registered Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the China Internet Network information Center, China’s top internet administrator.

“Finding new hosts isn’t that big of a deal,” Anglin claimed in his advice to Parler, adding that it was “easy enough for me,” because “I’ve always been relatively pro-PRC [People’s Republic of China], or at least not anti-PRC.” But, he stressed any right-wing sites that continue to criticize Beijing “are going to be met with a lot less friendliness than I was.”

An audit of the Daily Stormer’s archives attests to Anglin’s claim. He writes frequently about his support for Beijing’s policies against Uighur Muslims and argues that China enjoys more freedom of speech than in the United States. Anglin has even advocated for a Chinese occupation of the West as an alternative to supposed “Jewish rule” and has called on right-wingers to use the Chinese messaging app WeChat as a “more secure” alternative to other instant messaging apps.

While far-right groups often claim to be opposed to the Chinese Communist Party, the pro-Beijing stance has been reflected in Daily Stormer readers like the Christchurch terrorist, an Australian white supremacist, who donated to the publication three times in 2018, a year before he murdered 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The terrorist traveled to China six times between 2014 and 2015 and wrote in his manifesto that China was “the nation with the closest political and social values” to his own, and that he admired “non-diverse” nations. The Chinese Communist Party’s ideological moorings in Marxism-Leninism have given way to an assertive ethnonationalism, especially under Xi Jinping. The posture is most chillingly apparent in Beijing’s repression and subjugation of millions of Uighurs.

Russian internet services companies present another option for extremist websites like the Daily Stormer. After using a DNS hosted in China, the website switched to a .su address—the top-level domain for what used to be the Soviet Union. Until Saturday, Russian-owned DDoS-Guard was providing distributed denial-of-service attack protection to the Washington state-based hosting company VanwaTech, which, in turn, was providing hosting services to the Daily Stormer and 8kun, the forum formerly known as 8chan, which has been linked to white supremacism, neo-Nazism, anti-Semitism, multiple mass shootings, and child exploitation material. DDoS-Guard cut ties with VanwaTech following an investigation by the Guardian.

According to the Guardian, DDoS-Guard “was registered under a limited partnership, a financial structure in Scotland that allows non-residents to create companies with little scrutiny, on 24 November 2017 by Aleksei Likhachev and Evgeniy Marchenko—two Russian businessmen who remain owners of the company.” The partnership under which DDoS-Guard is registered is called Cognitive Cloud and is listed at an address in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Among DDoS-Guard’s reported rogue’s gallery of a client list compiled by cybersecurity expert Brian Krebs are HK Leaks, a website dedicated to doxxing Hong Kong protesters and journalists—an activity that has been promoted by groups linked to China’s Communist Party. Other clients, according to Vice, include the Russian Ministry of Defense, the FSB (the Kremlin’s secret service), and, as Krebs reported, the official website of Hamas, the Palestinian group labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

So far, the process of hounding toxic websites off the internet has only been done in an ad hoc way and usually only ever following a violent event linked to online activity on such sites. Even then, their banishment requires that a long list of services making up the technical “stack” to jointly decide to do so. Any of these services “could regulate content online,” Matthew Prince, the CEO of Cloudflare, wrote in a blog post explaining his company’s decision to stop providing proxy and DNS services to the Daily Stormer in 2017. “The question is: which of them should?”

In that post, and in another that the Cloudflare CEO wrote in 2019 explaining the company’s decision to terminate service for 8chan after a series of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; Poway, California; and Christchurch, New Zealand that were inspired by the forum, Prince practically begged governments to step in and provide regulatory guidance.

Hopefully regulatory guidance is on its way under the new Biden administration in the United States. But even if it does arrive, it’s likely that fringe and extremist websites will continue to seek refuge in other jurisdictions like Russia and China where they can more readily withstand diplomatic, political, and legal pressure.

For the Daily Stormer’s Anglin, the writing is on the wall. “My only advice is this,” Anglin wrote on his website the other day. “Go talk to the Chinese. Maybe they won’t look at your content, and maybe they will support you either way, even if you’re anti-Chinese, because you’re standing against the US government. I don’t know. But you don’t have any other options.”

Fergus Ryan is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's International Cyber Policy Centre.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola