How Reddit is redefining free speech on the Internet

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What does it really mean for speech to be free?

This is the question at the root of the turmoil that has torn apart Reddit, the self-appointed “front page of the internet,” over the past few weeks after company executives began a campaign to clean up Reddit’s seediest corners.

On Thursday, in an Ask Me Anything on the site, Reddit co-founder and recently returned CEO Steve Huffman announced a new set of rules for what can exist on Reddit. Some of the site's message boards that incite harm against others, such as "/r/rapingwomen" will be banned, but other offensive content will just be "reclassified" in a way that makes it slightly harder to find, much like the way pornography is put behind clickwalls or tagged NSFW ("Not Safe For Work").


Reddit, Huffman wrote, will still allow "content that violates a common sense of decency," to exist on the site, but users will have to log in and "opt in" to pay a visit to Reddit's racist, sexist, and/or homophobic terrain.

"One thing that isn't up for debate is why Reddit exists. Reddit is a place to have open and authentic discussions," Huffman explained. "We believe there is value in letting all views exist, even if we find some of them abhorrent, as long as they don’t pollute people’s enjoyment of the site."


Reddit’s announcement is an attempt to please everyone — those who believe that free speech is the right to say anything you want to anyone you want, and those who believe the free speech is predicated on freedom from harassment, or a right to feel safe.

The internet Reddit’s executives have dreamed up is a bizarre compromise. Redditors can continue saying whatever they want, and those of us that find it abhorrent can choose to simply close our eyes and ignore it.

Earlier this year, Reddit shut down a handful of abusive communities such as r/fatpeoplehate and issued a ban on nonconsensual pornography. But plenty of hateful subreddits, like the white supremacist r/coontown, still thrive on the site. Huffman's announcement says Reddit will ban "anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people" — because "these behaviors intimidate others into silence" — but other hateful speech will be allowed to remain on the site.

For example, Huffman explained:


Content like r/coontown, he said, would get a label akin to NSFW, and users attempting to access the subsection would receive a warning and have to choose to opt-in.  Those subreddits will also not appear in search results or public listings and "will generate no revenue for Reddit." (At all this, the members of r/coontown rejoiced.)

Reddit, Huffman, said, still needs to create more specific guidelines for what to ban, but it essentially boils down to whether there is some kind of threat of physical harm.


"This is what we will try, and if the hateful users continue to spill out into mainstream reddit, we will try more aggressive approaches," Huffman wrote.


Writing in the Washington Post on Thursday, recently departed Reddit CEO Ellen Pao declared that on the internet as a whole, and Reddit specifically, “the trolls are winning.”

Pao herself was a victim of merciless harassment on the site, for both her choices as CEO and a gender discrimination lawsuit she brought against her former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. Redditors circulated anti-Pao propaganda — among it an image of Adolf Hitler with Pao’s head superimposed on top — and bestowed upon her the racially charged nickname “Chairman Pao.”


When Pao announced her departure, Reddit board chairman Sam Altman deplored the harassment Pao faced as CEO, but also underscored what is fast becoming a company mantra, that Reddit is a place for “open and honest conversations.”

“The Internet started as a bastion for free expression. It encouraged broad engagement and a diversity of ideas,” Pao wrote. “Over time, however, that openness has enabled the harassment of people for their views, experiences, appearances or demographic backgrounds.”


Balancing freedom of expression with protection of the the internet’s citizens, Pao said, is only getting harder. It’s getting harder, though, because sites like Reddit typically ignore problems like harassment until their user base is so large that the problem is impossible to control.

“For many social platforms, moderation is an afterthought, tacked on top of the technology,” Forbes contributor Sarah Jeong wrote of the chaos at Reddit.


Huffman admitted to as much in his Ask Me Anything on Thursday.

"As we grew, I became increasingly uncomfortable projecting my worldview on others. More practically, I didn’t have time to pass judgement on everything, so I decided to judge nothing," he wrote. "So we entered a phase that can best be described as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."


Explaining his decision to leave Reddit and delete links to his website from the site, the hacker blogger Reg Braithwaite wrote that allowing hateful subreddits to continue to exist on Reddit — and profiting off of them — is an endorsement of hate speech.

“I don’t want to make money from lung cancer, so I don’t do business with tobacco companies,” he wrote. “I don’t want to do business with people who monetize hate, either.”


Reddit says that it prioritizes “open and honest discussion,” rather than free speech. But it seems clear that when anyone is allowed to say anything, the conversation is not actually open. Hate speech does incite harm against others, even if it is not physical.

Reddit is trying to walk that tightrope; Huffman says Reddit won't run ads on the content that get the "indecent tag." Reddit hasn't come up with a name for the tag yet, but the internet has already dubbed it NSFH — not safe for humanity.