Internet forum Voat's rise in popularity has hit a significant speedbump.
Earlier today, PayPal notified Voat administrators that their site account has been "limited" and their funds frozen, which is pretty crushing for a site funded almost entirely by user donations.
In a stickied thread on the forum's homepage, site creator Atif Colo posted the following:
"The reason given was 'Under the Acceptable Use Policy, PayPal may not be used to send or receive payments for certain sexually oriented materials or services or for items that could be considered obscene'. This is wrong/false on so many levels. We used PayPal only as a means to receive voluntary donations from people who wanted to support further development of Voat and to help pay for our hosting fees. This is beyond crazy."
Colo said he has reached out to PayPal for further clarification as to what this limitation entails, but has received no response. It appears that PayPal is holding their funds (and can continue to do so for up to 180 days).
For their part, Voat management does not think they're being treated fairly. I reached out to their email designated for general inquiries, and someone identifying himself as Atif Colo got back to me. "Whoever is putting this kind of pressure on Voat wants to see Voat disappear," he said. "The only reason we can see for this is because Voat is not censoring content unless [that] content is illegal. We would like to stress that we do not allow or endorse illegal content and we will remove such content when reported to us, as well as report offending users to authorities."
Though it has been around a little over a year, Voat gained momentum recently after Reddit management shut down several subreddits with particularly noxious subject matter, including r/fatpeoplehate. Fleeing what they saw as an increasingly bowdlerized environment, former Redditors joined Voat in such numbers as to crash the site's servers.
"Whoever is putting this kind of pressure on Voat wants to see Voat disappear."
Freedom of expression had always been an important part of Reddit's draw, but users were using forums like r/fatpeoplehate to coordinate off-forum attacks of individuals, and according to Reddit management this was what crossed the line. As their team stated, "We're banning behavior, not ideas."
Voat is essentially a clone of Reddit in appearance and functionality, but the site's moderators have vowed not to censor the content of any subforums. Its about page states: "No legal subject in this universe should be out of bounds." To be more specific, moderators will allow any content that is legal in the founders' home nation of Switzerland. A cursory browse of the front page showed nothing more salacious than a subforum called IndependentNudists. All the subforums I saw were devoted to harmless topics—news, programming, hockey, pixel art. But past the front page, scuzzier stuff lurks, including at least two different subforums dedicated to "jailbait" pictures.
The response from Voat users to this action by PayPal has obviously been overwhelmingly negative (as one user hyperbolized, "Now I see why the Roman Republic fell"). Some users have formed conspiracy theories that Reddit is behind all of it, one leveling misogynistic accusations against Reddit CEO Ellen Pao that this writer refuses to re-type. Others blame coordinated complaints from SJWs ("social justice warriors") or "fatties," vastly overestimating how much people actually care. (To be perfectly fair, an equal number of users are dismissing these claims as paranoid and ridiculous.)
So what caused the PayPal shutdown? According to a thread started by a moderator, it was possibly a subforum dedicated to "jailbait," which the moderator accused of hosting numerous nude photos of girls potentially under the age of consent. PayPal did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This is not the first time PayPal has effectively shut down a donation-dependent website's account. In 2010, it famously closed Wikileaks' account, setting off a debate about whether PayPal should be able to make such judgment calls. It has also put the kibosh on merchants selling what they deem "obscene written content," provoking ire from indie publisher Smashwords. "Obscenity" is even stickier territory, as what is and is not obscene is pretty subjective and famously lacks a solid legal definition.
Colo also points out that Reddit has not received any similar treatment from PayPal, despite still hosting metric tons of objectionable content. Whether or not users' conspiracy theories have any merit, one thing is clear: if PayPal wants to impose limitations on who can use their services, they have to enforce them across the board.
Update: Due in part to negative publicity, Voat has banned several subforums, including both the ones dedicated to jailbait. Atif Colo's statement includes the following:
"Because Voat is being used by so many people, the two of us simply cannot review everything that is being posted. For this reason, as a temporary measure, we have decided to ban any subverses which we discover or which are reported to us, where links to illegal content [are] being shared. We can't judge if the content is illegal or not, but we have no choice but to take precautions in order to protect Voat's future at this very fragile stage."
"In addition, to further dissuade individuals from posting questionable content, we will store all records about users who submit such content and we will forward these records to authorities upon request."