After Crackdown, Neo-Nazis Are Hosting Propaganda on Censor-Proof Networks
Neo-Nazis are using the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) to keep their propaganda online and avoid the tech world's recent clampdown.
A cultural shift has washed over the usually hands-off tech industry. Last summer, multiple companies, including GoDaddy, Google, and Cloudflare declined to provide their services to neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, and recently YouTube started to remove some neo-Nazi channels, albeit ignoring plenty more. This forced The Daily Stormer to find more creative ways to stay online, like dabbling with a harder to shutter version on the so-called dark web.
That shift into more obscure technologies in order to stay online and keep communicating is entering another phase: neo-Nazis are hosting propaganda on a decentralized network, making it more difficult to boot from the web.
“All my new video and audio content will be on IPFS,” notorious neo-Nazi Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer told Motherboard in an online chat. In short, IPFS, or the InterPlanetary File System, is a peer-to-peer network for hosting files, web content, videos, and more in a decentralized way. Think of it as being a bit like BitTorrent, where files are distributed across computers; this makes it possible to run a website without central servers, meaning it’s harder for a company to remove material. Users can visit IPFS content as they would normally via a browser and the IPFS.io proxy (which is controlled by the organization), but otherwise it may require software and some experience with the command line—the latter being more relevant if IPFS removes anyone from its proxy.
“IPFS powers the creation of diversely resilient networks which enable persistent availability with or without Internet backbone connectivity,” the project’s website reads. This means that, for example, old Geocities sites may still be around today if they were hosted on IPFS, and the technology also enables content to avoid censorship.
"It’s a massive decrease in scope and reach."
Matthew Hickey, co-founder of security training firm Hacker House and who is also known by his handle Hacker Fantastic, found some examples of neo-Nazi content on IPFS. In a project for an upcoming talk, Hickey scanned the IPFS network to, as he notes on Github, "identify interesting content." Neo-Nazis have been "driven to such challenging hosting practices," Hickey told Motherboard in a Twitter message.
Two IPFS links Hickey provided are currently hosting PDFs of Stormer, the Daily Stormer’s propaganda publication, as well as podcasts and a 1.6 GB backup of Weev’s YouTube content. Motherboard accessed both using the IPFS.io proxy.
Weev told Motherboard in a message that those particular links weren’t from him, but were from “our supporters.” He said he and others are building some IPFS infrastructure though, and he will personally move more of his own material—videos and audio—onto IPFS.
“I have an audience of roughly 10k people,” Weev wrote. “Small but dedicated. So I might be the biggest use case of IPFS right now.”
The recent clampdown from tech companies has certainly affected neo-Nazis and their online reach.
“Oh it’s a massive decrease in scope and reach,” Weev acknowledged. “Search and social are huge traffic drivers.”
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Weev said he anticipates that IPFS will boot him and others from channeling content through the IPFS.io proxy. After that, supporters would need to download the IPFS software and view banned content that way with special links, Weev suggested.
Matt Zumwalt from Protocol Labs, which oversees the IPFS project, told Motherboard in an email, "IPFS is an open source protocol like TCP/IP and HTTP. Millions of people use these protocols to share information and do not need permission from those who originally invented the protocols."
"On the other hand, we can decide which content is served by the machines we control. We run public IPFS gateways at gateway.ipfs.io and dweb.link, which are maintained by Protocol Labs as a service for the huge and growing community of innovators who are building tools on IPFS. We enforce a code of conduct for the IPFS community that’s designed encourage a 'friendly harassment-free space'. When content has come to our attention that violates our code of conduct, we have swiftly blocked the content on our gateways," Zumwalt added.
After the publication of this article, IPFS seemingly acted on the neo-Nazi material Hickey found: the content is no longer available through the IPFS.io proxy.
As Motherboard recently reported, Weev and various neo-Nazi groups have also turned to more private and censorship-resistant cryptocurrencies such as Monero. And on top of finance and site hosting, far right organizations are switching up their instant messaging tools as well: the gaming-focused chat service Discord recently banned a slew of far right and neo-Nazis users.
Case in point: Motherboard communicated with Weev using Ricochet, a decentralized chat program that uses the Tor anonymity network. Ricochet sets up a Tor onion service for each person in the conversation—there isn’t a server to go seize, or a company to tell to close customer accounts. Weev said hundreds of people have moved to Ricochet now.
“[It’s] what you gotta do when every messaging service in the world suspends you if you post your screen name on your website,” he added.
Update: This piece has been updated to include comment from Protocol Labs, which oversees IPFS, and add that IPFS has seemingly blocked the discovered neo-Nazi content from the IPFS.io proxy.