By Rob Kuznia, Curt Devine and Yahya Abou-Ghazala, CNN
In October of 2018, a man walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire, killing 11 people — the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history. The suspected shooter had been a serial poster of genocidal rantings about Jews on a social platform called Gab.
Nearly five months later, another gunman strode into a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and began shooting. When he was done, 51 people in two mosques were dead — the country’s worst mass shooting in modern history. The 28-year-old live-streamed the rampage on Facebook and posted a manifesto online about “white genocide.”
In both cases, mainstream tech companies scrambled to remove the content from the internet; Gab — a Twitter-like platform long known for its extremist content — was yanked offline entirely.
And in both cases, a man named Rob Monster — an outspoken born-again Christian and the CEO of a tech company called Epik — made pointed restorations, republishing much of the New Zealand content and putting Gab back online. All in the name, he said, of free speech.
After reposting the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto online, Monster publicly weighed in on the believability of the livestream video, speculating the slaughter may have been faked.
“Shell casings simply vanish into thin air,” he said in a social media post soon after the massacre. “It looks like a low budget CGI.”
Since those events, the wealthy Dutch-American tech entrepreneur has emerged as the notorious platform provider for far-right provocateurs banished by mainstream tech companies.
The conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, 2020 election deniers such as Ali Alexander, a far-right activist who spreads White nationalist ideas named Nick Fuentes, online forums such as Parler and AR15.com — they all have a history of being jettisoned by mainstream social media companies or other tech giants for various reasons, including spreading hate, broadcasting dangerous misinformation or inciting violence. All have found a home at Epik.
Once obscure, Epik — a domain-name registrar and web hosting company — has transformed itself into a culture-war lightning rod.
Lightning struck this fall, when so-called hacktivists illegally cracked open the company’s databases and made them public, triggering a feeding frenzy for internet researchers who have been sifting through a decade’s worth of data, which includes 15 million email addresses from customers and noncustomers alike, as well as names, home addresses, passwords and as many as 38,000 credit card numbers.
Revelations from the mountain of information are trickling in, unveiling a web of connections among operatives of the far right and outing names of sympathizers of extremist groups.
This has cemented the perception of Monster as an ally to the far right, and deepened the notoriety of a brand that had already been so infamous that, early this year, the upscale Seattle suburb in which Monster resides – Sammamish — released two statements in as many days distancing itself from his company in response to uproar over Epik picking up Parler.
But while web experts note that Epik is a victim of a crime, Monster, who has profited by turning his company into a haven for the far right, says he doesn’t feel like a victim.
“It didn’t kill us,” he has said of the hack. “It’s gonna make us stronger.”
Heidi Beirich, chief strategy officer for the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said without Monster’s Epik, “a lot of Nazi content” would not exist on the web.
“This is the kind of thing where you have to start wondering — is this about free speech or is he celebrating?” she said. “I just can’t quite figure the guy out.”
Compassion for haters, but muted on plight of the hated
For all of its reveals, the hack has done little to lessen the mystery surrounding Monster, a largely behind-the-scenes figure in a politically charged universe.
Despite his status as one of the web’s most influential enablers of extremist content, Monster, 54, has amassed a modest 4,600-plus followers on Twitter, where he peppers his social media posts with allusions to prayer and God.
And while Nazi, anti-Semitic, racist and anti-LGBT material can be readily found on sites his company keeps online, Monster’s own social media presence has a banal and even benign tone, calling on followers to be kind, for instance, or touting an upcoming Epik-created initiative for orphans.
Monster was hesitant to sit for an off-the-record interview with CNN, claiming he’s been burned by journalists. And even after an hourlong conversation in his lakeside mansion, he would only offer on-the-record quotes through an attorney.
Epik’s pivot to becoming the “free speech” alternative to Big Tech behemoths like GoDaddy has granted him visibility, which has been good for business.
But now, Monster complains that he feels demonized by the media. Despite the nature of the content his company enables, he speculates that this media treatment — he once referred to it in a talk as “persecution” — has something to do with his last name, which is common in the Netherlands, where there exists a town called Monster on the western coast.
“It sounds like a villain,” he said recently, “but I’m not a villain.”
The son of parents who emigrated from the Netherlands in 1967, Monster was raised in an atheist household and attended a private Quaker school in Philadelphia called Germantown Friends. His father, Arie Willem Monster, was a Fulbright Scholar who became a computer science professor at Temple University.
Monster’s paternal grandfather — also named Arie Willem Monster — was a reserve medical officer for the Dutch Army during German occupation in World War II, according to records reviewed by CNN at the National Archives in the Netherlands.
Documents from governmental commissions evaluating military staff shortly after the war showed he told investigators he refused to treat Nazi soldiers, a decision that he said caused him “trouble and the usual threats” from the enemy. Arie also said he provided medical treatment for people in hiding, including members of the resistance and a few Canadian pilots. The medical resistance group “Medisch Contact” vouched for Arie, saying he joined political protests against Nazis, wrote a letter of protest against the “Nazification” of health insurance and that “his morality is excellent.”
Monster said his maternal grandfather, too, played an active role in resisting German occupation, providing food and shelter for the Allied paratroopers who would sometimes be dropped into the fields of his farm.
“There is some lineage in my family of objecting to tyrants and despots and safeguarding sovereignty even when it was uncomfortable or personally dangerous,” he told CNN.
As a child, Rob Monster says, he often was sent to the Netherlands in the summers to work on the farm of his maternal grandparents. His grandfather paid him, and, Monster has said, he developed an early interest in money — so much so he started trading stocks.
“If I was investing in a company — I was 12, mind you — I would call or visit with the company I was investing in,” he told CNN. “They would take my meeting because it was so weird.”
An Ivy League alum who has been the CEO of several companies, Monster embraced Christianity later in life — in 2013 — and uses the language of redemption to explain his company’s comparatively high tolerance for extremists.
“There are people that humanity has discarded,” he told an interviewer on a Christian-themed podcast earlier this year. “We actually will talk to people that others might discard, but part of the reason why we talk to them is because we believe there’s an opportunity to appeal to their higher selves.”
Monster stresses that he isn’t a free speech absolutist. Indeed, he has declined service for two of the web’s fringiest elements — such as a forum called 8chan and a neo-Nazi website called The Daily Stormer — because they “propagate hate.”
“I used to think there is no such thing as hate speech,” he told CNN. “Then I concluded some people have hate in their hearts.”
Sensitive to claims of providing a safe harbor for hate speech, Epik dedicates a page on its website to displaying letters addressing account holders who have crossed the line.
Still, Monster’s definition of irredeemable hate speech is murky.
When shown a still-existing Nazi-themed Gab account — which also bears the Daily Stormer name and prominently depicts swastikas and allusions to Hitler — Monster told CNN he strongly disapproves of the material. “I’m also not comfortable being the person who decides what content should be allowed to continue to exist,” he added. “I support lawful free speech — even for speech we dislike.”
Monster portrays his company’s willingness to do business with White nationalists or people who “manifest genocidal thoughts” as a gesture of benevolence.
“Even the most dark, mean-spirited individual, if you attempt to engage that person with humility and compassion, more times than not, they will actually respond to that,” he recently said.
Asked what he thinks the media fails to understand about him, he told CNN: “I can deal with people who are very lost and see hope for them.”
But Monster has exhibited little interest in reflecting on the tragedies that prompted him to react in ways that have brought visibility — and profits — to Epik.
In the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, he published a blog post touting Epik as a bastion of free speech — adorning the page with lofty pull quotes from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin — but made no mention of the horrific attack or the victims.
In the aftermath of the New Zealand shooting that killed dozens, Monster seemed to use his online restoration of the shooter’s manifesto as a marketing opportunity.
In a message on Gab informing people where they could find the shooter’s “writing” on a peer-to-peer network that he called “effectively uncensorable,” he added promotional language about how others could do the same using services provided by Epik. (Monster told CNN in an email that it had not been his intent to turn the tragedy into a marketing opportunity, and that the link to the manifesto and the promotional message “should not have been in the same post.”)
Monster declined to say whether, if given the chance to do it over, he would again put the Christchurch content back online — or whether he still thinks the attack could have been a false flag.
But when pressed, he condemned the Pittsburgh and Christchurch attacks.
“Those shootings in holy places were evil,” Monster told CNN. “I believe life is precious, and I pray that the families impacted by such senseless violence find peace.”
Giving money to his enemy
Three days after news of the hack became public September 13, Monster held a four-hour Q&A session on a Zoom-like platform called PrayerMeeting.com. It started as a kind of news conference to discuss the breach but evolved into something like a late-night campfire chat, albeit with an element of the surreal.
Monster recited prayers to ward off demons, warned participants not to mess with the hacked data because it is “cursed,” and spoke in friendly tones with a motley cast of characters that included a neo-Nazi and a founder of Anonymous — the hacktivist collective that claims responsibility for the attack on his company.
Through it all, Monster seemed oddly in his element and unguarded.
“Do you guys want to do this again tomorrow?” he at one point asked the group of up to 40 people that included hackers, activists, trolls and journalists. “I’ll do it again tomorrow.”
About 15 minutes into the call, Monster cheerfully called out the presence of an unlikely participant: Aubrey “Kirtaner” Cottle, who describes himself as a founder of Anonymous. In other words — Monster’s enemy.
“Kirtaner!” he said, clapping his hands. “What’s up, bro?”
Monster asked Cottle if he performed the hack.
Cottle denied it, then added, “I would never, ever, ever, ever admit to a federal crime in a space like this.”
A day or two later, Monster donated $444 to the GoFundMe page set up by Cottle, who told CNN he lives off donations. Monster has referenced the number as having biblical connotations; Cottle took the gesture as a message.
“He’s got his eye on me,” Cottle told CNN. “He had to go digging to find that GoFundMe.”
Cottle — who said he lives modestly in Toronto — acknowledged that he took Monster’s money and used it for a trip to visit his young child in Philadelphia.
Monster told CNN he believes Cottle is the culprit.
“But that doesn’t mean I can’t have compassion for him,” he said. “Love the sinner, not the sin.” He added: “You’d be amazed at how many people — who are lost and on a dark path — are transformed into noble citizens because somebody gave them the benefit of the doubt.”
Monster had another remarkable conversation during the call — one that seemed to sum up his entire approach to online hate speech. He noticed a man on the call showing off a chest tattoo of a swastika.
Monster engaged him directly.
“What’s your ‘why’?” he asked, giving Auernheimer the floor.
Auernheimer began holding court, and at one point said, “The Western neoliberal order is about to collapse on itself.”
“I agree with that,” Monster replied.
But Auernheimer also proceeded to lay out a string of vile beliefs: Slavery is a good institution; medieval laws making women the property of men should be restored; all Jews should be “expelled.”
After letting Auernheimer ramble for more than six minutes – with frequent interruptions from other callers – Monster finally muted him.
“Weev? I gotta tell you bro, I don’t think that you’re very enlightened,” he said. “I will pray for you tonight.”
Monster also uttered to Auernheimer another of his common refrains: “Much love to you.”
“Probably nobody’s ever told him that,” Monster later told CNN.
Monster said he was trying to help Auernheimer “walk off the battlefield.”
“A lot of these guys are like shock jocks,” he said. “They don’t necessarily believe what they’re saying. I tried to appeal to his highest self — there’s a spark of divinity in everybody.”
It is often implied or assumed that Monster himself harbors the views of some of the extremists he enables. It’s the reason Cottle condones the hack of Epik.
“During World War II, you f**k up some Nazis, you’re heralded as a hero,” Cottle told CNN. “How should it be any different these days?”
Monster has said he isn’t a White nationalist, describing himself instead as a “Christian libertarian” who believes in freedom of expression.
But for a man who often says he is on a quest for truth, he seems to have an oddly high tolerance for conspiracy theories.
During the prayer meeting, Monster said he considers Infowars, the conspiracy theory website owned by his client, Alex Jones — who has said 9/11 was an inside job, the famous footage of the 1969 lunar landing was staged, the Sandy Hook mass shooting was a false flag, the 2020 election was stolen and speculated that Michelle Obama is a man — to be “like a gateway drug for, for like truth.” At another point, he acknowledged that some of Jones’ claims are “a little fringe,” but added, “He gets some stuff right.”
(Jones has said it was a “form of psychosis” that caused him to believe certain events — such as the Sandy Hook massacre — were staged.)
Meanwhile, Monster believes the mainstream media and online resources like Wikipedia are purveyors of propaganda.
“Do you guys get how subverted Wikipedia is?” he said during the prayer meeting. “You realize how much of a globalist tool that thing has become? You get that? Is that, like, lost on people?”
Divine intervention on the Mediterranean Sea
It would be tempting to think Monster took on Gab — and rebranded Epik as a “free speech” champion — for the money, but while it is difficult to assess his motive, he was well-to-do long before making that move.
In 1999, after a stint as a product manager for Pampers, the Cornell University alum started an online polling company called Global Market Insite (GMI) that grew explosively for over a decade. He even landed the Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2005 from Ernst & Young, one of the Big Four accounting firms. But Monster was fired from his own company in 2007 for clashing with executives — GMI sources told CNN he had unrealistic expectations. Still, he remained on the board. Monster would later profit handsomely in 2011, when GMI was purchased by WPP, the world’s largest advertising group, in a nine-figure cash deal.
After a brief early retirement at age 40, Monster got back into the entrepreneur game, immersing himself in the world of domain-name speculation. He started Epik in 2009. A few years later, he found Jesus, and it was divine intervention, he said, that hit him with a premonition: He needed to compete with GoDaddy, the world’s largest domain-name registrar and web hosting company.
As Monster tells the story, it was late summer of 2018, and he was on a Mediterranean cruise.
“Middle of the Mediterranean, underneath the Perseid meteor shower, and I’m looking up at the sky,” he said. “Beautiful, clear night, like endless stars, and I have absolute clarity that the Lord is going to need a registrar. It’s the closest thing to a calling I’ve ever experienced.”
It was an optimal time for a calling: Monster’s relations with executives at another company where he was the CEO were rapidly deteriorating.
That summer, Monster was actually the CEO of two companies simultaneously — Epik, and an online commerce company called DigitalTown.
DigitalTown was a decades-old entity that had had several iterations, but Monster’s vision for the company was to provide a way for people to conveniently use the internet to buy locally in the same way they now use it to buy from Amazon. Monster told investors that the technology would be built on a blockchain.
It failed, and who’s at fault depends on whom you ask.
Several former DigitalTown colleagues told CNN that Monster didn’t follow through on his big ideas. Monster said by the time he came aboard, the company — which recruited him in 2015 — was already a sinking ship.
In any case, last year, DigitalTown filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. (It is still trying to reinvent itself.)
Monster took a hit, too: Because DigitalTown went broke, he was never paid for about $750,000 worth of domain names it owed Epik, or about $250,000 in deferred salary payments, a former colleague at DigitalTown told CNN.
In mid-October of 2018, Monster traded bitter emails with a DigitalTown executive who said the company wasn’t inclined to make further payments to him.
“Everyone wants to stick it to you for sticking it to us,” the executive told Monster in an email obtained by CNN.
“I have not harmed DT at all, so stop that nonsense,” Monster replied.
Less than two weeks later — on October 27, 2018 — came the massacre in Pittsburgh. To this day, the synagogue remains fenced off, so traumatic was the atrocity to the community.
It would lead to a major turning point for Epik as a brand, and Monster as a public figure.
The suspect, Robert Bowers, had used Gab to rail against immigrants and Jews. Shortly after the rampage, a host of tech companies — including PayPal and GoDaddy — announced they would end their service to Gab. The site had already stirred controversy for hate speech, such as when a man who’d once been a candidate for US Senate was flagged for posting about the “holohoax” and calling Jews “livestock,” as well as for disinformation when a bunch of Brazilian political pages in support of now-President Jair Bolsonaro fled en masse to Gab after having been banned or suspended from Facebook and Twitter, according to Ars Technica, a website covering news about the tech industry.
With his burned bridge at DigitalTown still smoldering, Monster moved quickly to seize the opportunity. He met with Gab’s founder, Andrew Torba, then a 27-year-old tech entrepreneur and Christian conservative.
On November 3, 2018, Monster announced that Epik would be the domain registrar for Gab. (Epik soon after purchased the European company — Sibyl Systems — that provides web hosting for Gab.)
Gab came back online the following day.
“Can’t stop us, won’t stop us. Free Speech LIVES!” the social media site said in an announcement.
It was an unnerving time for Monster. That night, he called the King County Sheriff’s Office to report a suspicious vehicle near his home, saying it could be connected to threats he’d been receiving from “radical leftists.” Monster worried his home would be vandalized, according to records obtained by CNN.
He later contacted the sheriff’s office to report several more threats, which he received online and in real life. In mid-November of 2018 Monster told a deputy he’d received a “glitter bomb” in the mail and neighbors were getting fliers about him on their property, according to sheriff’s reports obtained by CNN. Monster told a deputy he worried the harassment would escalate.
Epik gains attention — and business
Monster’s welcoming of Gab attracted media attention, and there is some evidence that his pivot was good for business, a CNN analysis found.
The number of dot-com domains registered at Epik jumped considerably in the months after the Pittsburgh shooting — from 243,000 in October of 2018 to more than 278,000 in December. (Dot coms still represent by far the largest share of domain extensions on the internet.) Prior to then, it had been growing in smaller monthly spurts, according to data from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which acts as a de facto regulator in the industry.
Other far-right sites would gravitate to Epik. Among the first to announce its migration in early 2019 was BitChute, a YouTube imitator that had been blocked by PayPal. According to the Anti-Defamation League, BitChute is rife with “swastikas and SS symbols” and videos praising Hitler as well as comments that glorify police beatings or vilify Muslims, immigrants and other marginalized groups.
A White power propaganda site was also registered on Epik by a former leader of a violent neo-Nazi group called Atomwaffen Division, according to a recent finding by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Monster told SPLC that he had terminated the site’s registration because it violated Epik’s terms and conditions.)
Others would include Parler, Alex Jones’s Infowars, and a forum called TheDonald, where users, prior to January 6, were calling for Trump supporters to “encircle congress” on that day, “bring handcuffs and zip ties to DC” and kill members of Congress who didn’t certify “Trump the rightful winner,” according to a report by SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks and analyzes the online activity of extremists.
Several high-profile right-wing customers came to Epik in the aftermath of the January 6 siege at the Capitol. The next day, a user of TheDonald called the King County Sheriff’s Office to report online threats against employees at Epik, according to a report obtained by CNN.
A deputy notified Monster, but said in a report that Monster seemed unconcerned.
“He said he has received death threats in the past because his company allows websites that exercise ‘free speech within the law,'” the deputy wrote.
A few days later, on January 12, Monster emailed a sheriff’s deputy to say that three sites — Parler.com, Bongino.com and AR15.com — “moved to Epik today following censorship actions by GoDaddy and Amazon.”
Monster went on: “There are plenty of conservatives and patriots in Sammamish and not too many unhinged people but just letting you know.” He added that the clinic run by his wife, a naturopathic physician, was also being targeted.
According to the latest available data, Epik’s portfolio of dot-com domains now numbers more than half a million, making it about the 45th-largest company in a realm that includes roughly a couple thousand, industry insiders say. Epik, they add, is about a hundredth the size of GoDaddy.
Monster, who says Epik employs about 80 people including contractors, acknowledges that the notoriety has been financially beneficial.
“Yes, indirectly it has,” he told CNN, “because the media attention to portray us as a villain — for some percent of the population, they interpret the opposite.”
His move to take on Gab marked the beginning of Epik’s fast evolution into a haven for the far right, essentially putting a target on the company.
Troy Hunt, founder of HaveIBeenPwned, a data breach search website that allows people to see whether their information has been compromised, said he figures 99% of Epik’s content is non-extremist, but “they have about 1% which is just like way out there and inconsistent with the values that many of us hold. … And that does sort of make them somewhat of a target.”
Even so, experts interviewed by CNN say the company appears to have regarded cybersecurity as an afterthought.
In the days after the mid-September hack, computer science experts were astonished by Epik’s lax approach to protecting its customers, especially in light of its tagline: “The Swiss bank of domains.”
Megan Squire, a computer science professor and fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center who has been examining the hack, said passwords and credit card numbers can be found in plain text.
“The technical stuff in this database is some of the worst — it is the worst I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It’s a horrible database. It’s got a terrible design, it’s full of mistakes, it’s incomprehensible at times, it’s sloppy.”
Also highlighting Epik’s lack of attention to safeguarding sensitive data is a cybersecurity expert who manages a private university’s cybersecurity operations and has been studying the hack as a kind of volunteer researcher.
“It’s a neglected environment … and bad practice all around,” said the cybersecurity expert, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid having to “drag my employer into this.”
In an email to CNN, Monster said while he didn’t agree with the experts’ assessment that Epik was lax on cybersecurity, he acknowledged that “we’ve clearly got quite a ways to go.”
“Technology is constantly advancing, and every business can improve security as things move forward,” he said. “Epik is doing exactly that.”
During the September 16 video conference, Monster agreed that the hack was bad, and blamed the vulnerability on a team of Russian developers who built the original platform using outdated code.
But he said Epik recently raised $32 million, which will enable the company to “step on the gas with infrastructure.”
Monster added that he has recently hired some talented tech people; one of them, Michael Zimmermann, is the former IT director for Alex Jones.
“We’re going to get our ducks fully in a row,” Monster said. “My guess is within six months we will be fairly competent in the cybersecurity arena.”
Revelations of the hack
The perpetrator of the massacre in New Zealand on May 15, 2019, was Brenton Tarrant, who posted his 74-page manifesto about “white genocide” on 8chan minutes before carrying out the attack. Hours later, somebody purchased a domain name from Epik called TarrantManifesto.com, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Another person purchased SaintTarrant.com.
The Epik hack, according to the report, revealed who they were: Zimmermann — Jones’ former IT director — and Timothy Thrift, who, according to Squire, also worked on Jones’s Infowars site.
“People like to think that Alex Jones is kind of a big buffoon, and that he just has these dumb ideas,” said Squire, one of the authors of the report. “He likes to present himself as not hateful or whatever. But I think what this shows is he definitely has people working for him who are doing that and are actively assisting the production of hateful propaganda.”
Zimmermann and Thrift did not respond to CNN’s multiple requests for comment; Infowars did not respond to a request emailed to its press office.
The hack also showed that a man who was listed as a director of the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers had been running a QAnon-affiliated site called QAlerts, said Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group.
“This connection puts yet more emphasis on how intricately connected QAnon, militia groups, and other extremist entities have become in recent years,” she said in an email to CNN.
The Seattle branch of the FBI told CNN it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation into the hack of Epik, but Monster has said that law enforcement is working on the case.
Toward the end of the online prayer meeting in September, Monster lamented the enormous amount of misinformation online. This prompted pushback.
“You’re the guy who hosts their bullshit, Rob,” said a man on the call, sounding incredulous. “You run it. You should know better … the QAnon crap? The QAnon crap got parents to murder their children, Rob.”
Monster responded with a dodge, casting himself as a put-upon rescuer of lost souls.
“Misguided people are out there, and the question is, do you isolate them or do you engage and rehabilitate them?” he said. “That’s a very difficult question. I tell you, it’s a ton of work — and most of it is thankless.”
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CNN’s Majlie de Puy Kamp contributed to this report.