The House Commitee on Homeland Security wants to have words with the elusive owner of 8chan -- the infamous, anything-goes Internet forum favored by white supremacists and mass shooting suspects. Jim Watkins appears to have accepted the invitation, eager to defend his website as the world's last bastion of unregulated speech. "I am on my way back to America as we speak," he wrote to Congress from 8chan's base in the Philippines on Wednesday. "Rest assured I am not an extremist."
This raises the question of who Watkins is, then. If you were expecting to see members of Congress interrogate a man in a hooded robe or some hacker kid in a Guy Fawkes mask, let us clear the misconception and introduce you to Watkins, a 50-something American expat -- and a total fountain pen freak.
"Every day's a great day when you have a new Marlen pen!" Watkins said in an unboxing video on his YouTube channel in late March, two weeks after a gunman massacred 51 people at a mosque in New Zealand and a 74-page missive on 8chan was linked to the suspect.
In May, about a week after police linked a fatal shooting at a California synagogue to another declaration on 8chan, Watkins showed off Marlen's Ulysses model, which he was dismayed to discover leaked ink.
The 13-part fountain pen series culminated in a July shootout between a Jinhao Flower and an Ohto Dude, which easily won for its ultrasmooth nib. A week later, 22 people died in a shooting at an El Paso Walmart and 8chan users, predictably, celebrated the anti-Hispanic missive that authorities link to the alleged shooter. 8chan's Web security provider subsequently cut ties with the site, forcing it offline and prompting Watkins to record a rare video that was not about pens.
"8chan is an empty piece of paper for writing on. It is disturbing for me that it can be so easily shut down," he said, backdropped by the enlarged head of Benjamin Franklin while a bugle played "Taps," lending the production a sort of 1990s cable-access flavor. "Ours is one of the last independent companies that offers a place where you can write down your thoughts, free from having to worry about whether they are offensive to one group or another."
The shootings were tragedies, Watkins said. He always cooperated with law enforcement when an 8chan user did something illegal, he said. But he rejected demands that he permanently shut down the forum, which he has bankrolled almost since its inception, keeping it afloat after its founder abandoned it in disgust.
The founder is Fredrick Brennan, a 25-year-old Brooklynite who matches 8chan's likely demographic more closely than a pen connoisseur with a wife and son in Manila. Brennan created the site in 2013, naming it after another anonymous "imageboard" forum called 4chan, which had too many rules for Brennan's liking.
"Imageboards are a haven for all of the terrible things you listed. That's exactly what makes them such wonderful places," Brennan told Know Your Meme in 2014, after 8chan had become an organizational hub for the Gamergate movement, which harassed female journalists in the name of more objective video game reviews.
8chan's users created subforums dedicated to anarchy, white nationalism, suicide and swimsuit photos of girls in their early teens. More than a few of these had titles that were variations on the n-word, and one was a crass reference to the gassing of Jews.
By then the site had accumulated more than 8 million posts (it had more than 88 million as of this week), and Brennan was having trouble affording servers and bandwidth to host all that free speech.
The imageboard's notoriety was already warding off mainstream Internet companies, and it kept crashing under its traffic load or disputes with its bandwidth provider. 8chan's Web registrar took it offline temporarily in early 2015, citing "child abuse" after receiving complaints about its pedophilia forums. But Brennan had good news at 8chan's first birthday party, held at a strip club in Queens: He was moving to the Philippines to join his new business partner, an unlikely savior named Jim Watkins.
Watkins had learned of Brennan's plight through his son and offered to help, he told Splinter in 2016. The article didn't explain how Watkins could afford to host 8chan -- or why he would want to -- but he already had on his résumé a collection of small, oddball businesses rooted at the intersection of technology, free speech and smut.
The first of these was a website called Asian Bikini Bar, which Watkins claims was one of the biggest porn-streaming sites in the world during its heyday in the 1990s, when porn-streaming sites were few and far between. Built while Watkins was working a day job for the U.S. Army, Splinter reported, the site catered to people in Japan, where censorship laws prevented people from hosting their own bikini bars.
Asian Bikini Bar has vanished from the Internet. In its place, Watkins and his company N.T. Technology host or are otherwise associated with a handful of ventures, including a conspiratorial website called the Goldwater, and Books.audio, which claims Watkins as a narrator and benefactor, but denies any corporate affiliation with him. Anyway, if you run out of pen reviews on Watkins's YouTube channel, he has several dozen videos of himself reading books such as Ayn Rand's "Anthem" and "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."
This ramshackle biography of computer stuff and porn stuff and censorship stuff and whatever else Watkins had been doing in the Philippines since he moved there in the mid-2000s helped convinced Brennan to entrust him with 8chan. He assured 8chan's users that "Jim was completely trustworthy" in a 2015 video, after Watkins had effectively taken over the website.
Watkins sat beside him in what looked like a Philippines living room, smoking a cigarette and wearing camo beach shorts that clashed dizzyingly with his tiger-pattern T-shirt. "Basically his life is a real-life Minecraft," Brennan told the camera. "He goes out in the jungle and cuts down trees and builds some shacks."
No shack-building is evident on Watkins's YouTube channel, though he has posted copious footage of himself raising pigs and black soldier fly maggots -- and doing yoga on a beach in western Luzon.
Learning more about his life overseas has proved difficult. When a reporter with Japan's Kyodo News tracked him down in Manila in 2012, Watkins demanded: "How dare you barge into my office like a gangster?" In May, 8chan's Twitter account claimed a Vice News crew had "just broke and entered into Jim's bedroom" -- although the accompanying pictures and emails showed them standing outside on a walkway after trying to negotiate an interview. When The Washington Post contacted Watkins after the El Paso declaration turned up on 8chan, he replied, in toto, "I hope you are well."
He has probably been better, himself. Brennan had a change of heart some time after moving to the Philippines and severed his ties to 8chan. He still lives near Watkins in Manila, he told The New York Times this week, but is trying to convince him to shut the site down. "A full 24 hours after the shootings [8chan] still had on the front page the words 'Embrace Infamy,' " Brennan told CNN. "It's kind of like they're laughing about this."
The world might beat him to it. 8chan has been offline since shortly after the El Paso attack, when its Web security company abandoned it and hackers promptly crashed it. Watkins has promised to bring it back online, but has had little success finding a new security provider, with his site a pariah in international news.
It's in these circumstance that he is apparently traveling back to his native United States, toward a possible confrontation with Congress over the boundaries of freedom and hate. So get your pen ready.