That is not, needless to say, the philosophy of 8chan’s members — nor its polarizing, lionized overseer, Fredrick Brennan. Brennan, a 4chan user since age 12, started 8chan in October 2013 after taking mushrooms and dreaming up a “free speech friendly 4chan alternative.” Like 4chan, Brennan’s forums would be anonymous communities where users could post text and images in nested, themed comment threads. But unlike 4chan, Brennan promised, his Internet utopia would allow anything and everything — provided only that it didn’t violate U.S. law.
To advocates of free speech and a free Internet, Brennan’s vision was refreshing — liberating, even. 8chan gained a small, loyal following on its launch in 2013 and blew up a year later when 4chan clamped down on Gamergate-related threads. Thousands of angry users fled to 8chan, quickly making it the second-most popular imageboard site on the Web.
“Imageboards are the most important medium for free speech on the Internet,” Brennan told Know Your Meme in the midst of that exodus. “Imageboards are a haven for [terrible things] … and that’s exactly what makes them such wonderful places. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The problem with terrible things, of course, is that they tend to take on lives of their own. From the principled safety of 8chan, Gamergate supporters launched a number of campaigns against female journalists and videogame makers — some of which the FBI is purportedly investigating.
Meanwhile, Brennan has welcomed forums dedicated to pedophilia, suicide and concerted harassment or trolling. He does not personally police those forums for illegal content, per 8chan rules; instead, he trusts the creators of those forums and a “team of volunteers” to do it themselves.
It is no wonder that 8chan hosts, in the words of Gizmodo’s Chris Mills, “some of the nastiest s*** on the Internet.” Not explicitly illegal stuff, mind you, but stuff in the gray area, nonetheless: think threatening “dox” files on unsuspecting victims and softcore photos of children wearing thongs.
Brennan and his supporters — of whom there are many — point out that this is, legally, their right. Under the Communications Decency Act, a ’90s law that basically paved the way for free speech online, Web site administrators are not legally responsible for what their users post, no matter how gross their posts get.
There are only two exceptions — copyrighted content and child porn — and 8chan claims to police those things closely. It’s worth noting, however, that when a number of people reported 8chan’s active pedophilia boards to Cloudflare, a company that protects the site from malicious traffic, Brennan took screenshots of their names and e-mail addresses … and tweeted them publicly.
Previously, asked what he thought about the pedophilia boards on his site, Brennan called them “simply the cost of free speech.”
Of course, free speech has another cost, as 8chan is learning. Sure, you can preach your absolutism from the rooftops, and promise a principled haven for even the most destructive of things. But maybe don’t be super-surprised when your domain gets seized.