With online controversies popping up in the news regularly, the internet can sometimes seem like a lawless place. Many people seem to like it this way: after all, free speech should be a basic human right. However, in terms of codified laws, freedom of speech does not apply to the internet as a whole.
People who read the terms and conditions of many websites will quickly find that, while most speech is generally allowed, many web hosts and forums have a right to pull content whenever they choose. Many think that policing is doomed to failure due to the presence of proxy networks and the worldwide coverage of the internet. However, there are still certain laws and regulations that need to be upheld, depending on where the web hosting is based. Many websites have fallen foul of these regulations and as a result have been dropped swiftly by their web hosts. One of the most highly publicised cases in recent memory involved the web forum Voat.
Voat touted itself as an offshoot of Reddit, a highly popular social news/forum site. As Reddit began to roll out stricter anti-harassment policies, Voat appeared, in the eyes of Reddit users, to offer a haven for sharing their thoughts without trouble. The problems began as Reddit shut down certain inflammatory subreddits, certain categorised sub-forums for sharing of relevant news, and users reacted with hatred. A supposed exile occurred as Reddit users quickly headed to Voat, but they brought along with them the very material that Reddit sought to outlaw, along with illegal material. The belief that they were no longer restricted by the laws of a certain website meant that Voat was quickly flooded with questionable content.
This flood of illegal content lasted only a few days as it was quickly picked up on by Voat’s web host. Host Europe shut down Voat’s servers on the grounds that the site tolerated “illegal right-wing extremist content”. Paypal also shut down Voat’s account, which was used to donate funds to its upkeep.
Voat is not completely gone, however: it is now being hosted on Cloud-based servers in Switzerland, where they must obey Swiss laws including no posting of personal information or the intellectual property of other people.
Freedom of speech is often a controversial issue, but just as policing the internet has its problems, so does offering a platform of complete and total “free speech”. It is a web host’s duty to ensure that websites are not hosting illegal content. Any website that hosts a platform for sharing content needs to be very wary of what is demanded by their web hosting specialist, as well as the laws of the country that their host in based in.