In the past 12 months, popular Internet discourse has been severely afflicted with a malady we’ll call the PCs. There’s a lot of bellyaching, in short, over the perceived encroachment of “political correctness” and the persecution of “free speech.” First Gamergate griped that it was being silenced; then users cried censorship over Twitter’s more aggressive abuse policies; now Reddit, in a much-debated about-face, is zapping its most racist communities.
But here’s a little reassurance/reality check for you: Regardless of the rules private companies pass, the U.S. still has some of the strongest protections of Internet speech anywhere. If you want to say something racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, anti-feminist, anti-corporate, cruel, subversive or incendiary — this, my friends, is your country.
Case in point: Voat, the nascent forum widely billed as a looser, freer, anything-goes alternative to Reddit, was founded by two students in Switzerland. This week, the company went legit and incorporated … in the U.S.
“Why the U.S.?” wrote co-founder Atif Colo in a post announcing the change. “Switzerland seemed like a great option in the beginning, but when it comes to freedom of speech, the main idea behind Voat, U.S. law by far beats every other candidate country we’ve researched.”
By “U.S. law,” of course, Colo is referring both to the First Amendment — which protects U.S. citizens from government censorship of their speech — and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally protects Voat Inc., even if/when its users turn the site to really shady things. (Notably, in the months since Voat surged to mainstream prominence, forums on child porn, “right-wing extremist content” and doxing have all cropped up on it.)
Other countries — even other Western democracies — are not nearly as welcoming of these things. In Germany, for instance, the government actively suppresses hate speech and extremism on the Internet and off it. (Voat’s Berlin-based server actually suspended it for that reason.) In the U.K., standards for what constitute threatening speech are set far lower than they are in the U.S.
Even Switzerland, the original home of Voat — where even pirated TV shows are legal!! — has anti-racism legislation that prohibits public incitement to racial hatred and denying crimes against humanity. In other words, if Voat had incorporated there, it might’ve had to say goodbye to forums like the always fascinating v/conspiracy.
And this is ultimately the big picture, right, whatever you think of Voat or Reddit or free speech generally. It’s exhausting to wade into the comments thread on any social network content policy announcement and see users thrashing around in self-righteous agony, everyone convinced that they’ve been victimized and silenced by the big, bad, systemic PC machine.
They’ve lost perspective of the fact that their principles are — legally speaking — quite secure in the U.S. What they’re encountering is not a coordinated, conspiratorial erosion of offensive Internet speech, but the exercising of some pretty understandable corporate prerogatives.
Of course, now that Voat is also itself a corporation — and not just some kid’s dorm-room side hustle — it’s likely to face some of the same pressures. Those pressures will come not from government, however, but from venture capitalists and advertisers.
God bless America, in other words.
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