The site, 8chan, last year played a central role in the contentious debate in the United States over the limits of free speech and moderation on internet platforms after it was linked to a string of mass shootings, including at two mosques in New Zealand. But the ongoing legal wrangling in the Philippines could prove to be a test for the country’s sweeping cybercrime law and the limits of what people can say online.
The arrest warrant issued earlier this week stems from disparaging tweets 8chan’s founder Fredrick Brennan sent in September and October of last year about the site’s current owner, Jim Watkins. In the tweets, Brennan said Watkins appeared to be “going senile” and that the moderators of the site were “terrible incompetent people.”
Brennan, an American citizen who resides in Manila but is currently in California, told The Washington Post on Friday that the move was an “absurd miscarriage of justice,” adding “he [Watkins] doesn’t care about the free speech of poor brown people because they don’t make him any money.”
Brennan said he was unsure if he would return to the Philippines, where his lawyer, Alexander Acain Jr., has appealed to the Department of Justice to have the warrant recalled. Brennan faces up to 10 years in jail if found guilty, Acain said.
“The Prosecutor’s Office of Pasig is expanding the definition of libel, which is improper. Tweeting about somebody maybe going senile is not libelous,” Acain said. “There was no malice in Mr. Brennan’s tweets about Mr. Watkins. He was merely expressing his opinion about Mr. Watkins’ demeanor when he appeared for investigation in the U.S. Congress.”
Court documents show the arrest warrant was issued on Monday, but Acain said he became aware of it only on Thursday. Acain said he has advised Brennan to return to Manila and post bail, which is around $200.
Leyton Lazada, Watkins’ attorney, did not respond to a request for comment. Watkins was “severely disappointed, humiliated and anguished,” by the tweets, according to court documents. The documents also say the tweets were posted by Brennan out of “pure hate and lust for vengeance,” and meant to “darken the reputation and competence” of Watkins.
Brennan, who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, more commonly referred to as brittle bone disease, founded 8chan in October 2013 during a psychedelic mushroom trip while living in New York. The site rapidly grew in popularity during the GamerGate controversy the following year as users from the popular 4chan imageboard migrated to the site where racism, homophobia and violent misogyny went largely unregulated.
Unable to keep the site running himself, Brennan linked up with Watkins and moved in 2014 to the Philippines where Watkins, also an American, is a longtime resident and has numerous business interests. Watkins did not respond to requests for comment.
Brennan eventually handed control of the site to Watkins and his son, before the two had an acrimonious falling out. Brennan left Watkins’ company in 2018 and last year began speaking out against the site following a spate of mass shootings in New Zealand, California and Texas. The alleged shooters appeared to be inspired by the site, posted their manifestos there and were cheered on by the site’s other anonymous users.
Several internet infrastructure companies, most notably Cloudflare, pulled their services following the shooting in El Paso, Texas, forcing the site temporarily offline.
Brennan succeeded briefly in keeping the site down as he badgered companies supporting the site on social media to cut their support, but it eventually re-emerged in November under the name 8kun. The site is now a hub for the sprawling Qanon conspiracy theory that involves President Donald Trump. Recently, Brennan has also been fighting Watkins’ efforts to become a citizen of the Philippines. The naturalization process is ongoing.
Watkins is pursuing Brennan under the Philippines Cybercrime Prevention Act. The law was enacted in 2012 despite outcry from rights groups and the United Nations, which warned that it was not in line with international norms. Amnesty International said that it “rolls back protection for free speech” and would have a “chilling effect” on speech in the country. It has most notably been used against journalist Maria Ressa in what the Committee to Protect Journalists labeled a “campaign of harassment.”
The law would appear to run counter to Watkins’ stance as a free expression absolutist, who has railed against government and businesses infringing on speech. Watkins, who previously ran a porn website, was subpoenaed by the House Homeland Security Committee in September to explain 8chan. In prepared remarks he said he had “no intention of deleting constitutionally protected hate speech,” and that the “the remedy for this type of speech is counter speech.”
Watkins added: “This may be a contrary opinion to our friends in other countries. Those across the oceans may feel it necessary to stifle the voice of minority opinions. This is not what I intend to do.”