Today
Mon 6 December 2021

 ‘Snitch’ website for informants jumps the pond after being removed by multiple US web hosts for violating privacy terms of service and risking breach of federal laws  

After Texas passed a new law allowing private citizens to sue anyone seeking or providing abortion services after 6 weeks of pregnancy, a right-wing advocacy group launched what it called an anti-abortion ‘whistleblower’ site designed to collect private information and facilitate the filing of lawsuits. 

Created by right-wing evangelical group Texas Right To Life, the Prolifewhistleblower.com website seeks to facilitate the filing of civil lawsuits and collection of the collection at least $10,000 for successful anti-abortion lawsuits. The recently passed law in Texas provides any private citizen with the right to bring such a lawsuit to court, effectively deputising citizens to act as bounty hunters.  

Within hours of its launch, the site became the target of pro-abortion activists and hackers who overwhelmed it with false reports and spam traffic. One activist on TikTok created a script that automatically feeds fake reports into the website’s form, as Motherboard reported on 2 September. The distributed hacker non-group Anonymous vowed to compromise the site in a video posted on Twitter

Complaints sent to its initial domain registrar and web host, GoDaddy, led the company to remove the site from its servers on 3 September for breaching its terms of service related to privacy. The next day, the site had moved to a new registrar, the far-right haven Epik, and a new IP host, Digital Ocean.


Epik Fail

Epik is known for hosting neo-Nazi and other white supremacist content. Their CEO Rob Monster denies having sympathies for white nationalism, but has appeared on white nationalist podcasts and promoted conspiracy theories, such as the Christchurch mosque shooting was a hoax. 

Epik is currently the domain registrar for several dens of right-wing extremism, including Gab, Parler, and 8Chan, the last of which now simply redirects to its successor, 8kun. 8chan and 8kun are most infamously known for their association with QAnon. To this day, Epik provides free forwarding services to these and other organizations, like the neo-Nazi site, the Daily Stormer.

Despite their questionable standards, Epik put the anti-abortion bounty hunting website on notice within less than 24 hours. “We determined the site violated Epik’s Terms of Use,” an Epik representative said in an email statement, specifically citing the form used to collect information from informants. “We contacted the owner of the domain, who agreed to disable the collection of user submissions on this domain.”

At first, only the tip form was disabled, but eventually, the entire website was taken down upon the urging of Epik leadership. It is currently inaccessible to the public and currently redirects to the website for Texas Right To Life. 

Epik continues to provide domain services to Prolifewhistleblower.com, as confirmed by Texas Right to Life. Epik general counsel Daniel Prince told the Washington Post that the company would no longer offer services if the site allows the submission of private information about third parties, thus rendering the main purpose of the website moot. 

The creators of the website vowed to return. “ProLifeWhistleblower.com will be back up soon to continue collecting anonymous tips,” a Texas Right to Life representative said to CBS News. 

If and when the website will return, and whether it will continue to collect third party information is unclear. But it appears a solution is already in the works.  

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Jumping the Pond

In a bizarre twist, Prolifewhistleblower.com appears to have a new host with ties to the United Kingdom. Web registration records indicate a switch to a UK  based web host with ties to Crimea, and as well as a link to servers owned by a New Jersey-based corporation that also hosts right-wing extremist and Christian hate-group content.

Website registration records indicate the IP now associated with the URL Prolifewhistleblower.com is associated with UK-based Overoptic Systems LTD, which also does business by the name HQHost. Overoptic Systems only has one listed corporate director and their address is in Crimea. At the time of publication, Overoptic Systems had not returned a request for comment.

Records also indicate these IP addresses are linked to a New Jersey-based company called NatCoWeb Corp. They also show that NatCoWeb hosts extremist content, including a forum for the 3 Percenter right-wing extremist group and two websites for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nonprofit labelled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. Little can be found about NatCoWeb Corp online. It doesn’t list corporate officers and doesn’t appear in New Jersey state corporate registration lookups.  At the time of publication, NatCoWeb had not returned a request for comment.

Whois records of the IP address associated with Prolifewhistleblower.com also show Anonymize Inc. as the privacy administrator. NatCoWeb Corp and Anonymize Inc. appear to have a number of links. The bulk of the IPs on the NatCoWep Corp server list Anonymize Inc as their privacy administrator. Anonymize is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Epik.  

A certified network engineer who analyzed these web records for the Byline Times believes that, despite the seeming switch in IP records, Epik could still be providing IP hosting in some regard.

When approached for comment about their web host, a representative for Texas Right To Life said that it was still working with Epik and that the site is currently down while they establish “extra security protocols to protect our users before we put it back up.”

But when asked for clarification regarding the discrepancies in the registration records, specifically regarding whether Epik was providing them IP hosting, the representative said Epik was never the IP host. This is contradicted by records and previous reporting showing that the site was indeed hosted by BitMitigate at one point, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Epik.

In a comment to ArsTechnica on 7 September, a representative from Epik said the company never provided web hosting services to Prowhistleblower.com despite the fact that the website was at one point hosted on BitMitigate, a web host owned by Epik. While legally correct, the distinction appears to split hairs.  Other IP addresses that redirect to Epik.com also link to IP blocks managed by  British company Tinhat LLP, which in turn also links back to Anonymize.  It has two directors whose addresses are listed in Switzerland.

Rob Monster was reached by phone and spoke with the Byline Times for over 15 minutes, but refused to comment on the record regarding any of these links. 


FACE the Music

If the website returns, it may face legal challenges. A recent announcement by United States Attorney General Merrick Garland made it clear that the federal government would seek to protect those seeking access to abortion services under what is known as the FACE Act. 

The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act, prohibits the use of physical force, threat of physical force or physical obstruction to intentionally injure, intimidate, interfere with or attempt to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person who seeks to obtain or provide reproductive health services. 

In 2002, Planned Parenthood sued and won against an anti-abortion website “for its publication of “Wanted”-type posters and a “Nuremberg Files” Web site listing the names and addresses of abortion providers who, in the latter case, its authors hoped would one day be tried for “crimes against humanity.”

The narrow 6-5 decision hinged on the argument that the posters and website were designed to intimidate, rather than to persuade, doctors who provide abortion services. It is unclear whether a similar argument will be applied to websites such as Prolifewhistleblower.com, and whether a judge could be convinced that the snitch site serves as a form of intimidation that could lead to bodily harm. 

Nevertheless, Garland made clear in his statement that he is not ruling out any strategies.

“While the Justice Department urgently explores all options to challenge Texas SB8 in order to protect the constitutional rights of women and other persons, including access to an abortion, we will continue to protect those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services pursuant to our criminal and civil enforcement of the FACE Act.”

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