A law enforcement agent going down a Reddit rabbit hole has resulted in another round of censorship announcements from the "front page of the Internet." Reddit announced on its ChillingEffects subreddit Thursday that the company will comply with countries’ local laws, blocking access to content a country deems illegal whenever it receives a request to do so.
The decision from Reddit appears to have come after Russian officials discovered a long-dormant post (written in Russian) with tips on growing psychedelic mushrooms. This week, officials from Roskomnadzor, the country's censorship agency, wrote on Russia's version of Facebook that they'd asked Reddit to remove the post, but hadn't heard a response. It included this "Wanted" ad:
Russia then put Reddit on a list of sites that should be banned by Russian ISPs. The author of the post claimed responsibility for the block, but said he wouldn't remove it, citing free speech. "I also think that Reddit administration needs to do nothing," user rsocfan wrote. "This is important issue on freedom of speech."
To remedy the situation, on Thursday, Reddit said that it would block Russian IP addresses trying to access the DIY psychedelic mushroom post in "/r/rudrugs," as well as blocking German IPs from accessing the "/r/watchpeopledie" subreddit, in order to keep Reddit accessible in those regions.
"We want to ensure our services are available to users everywhere, but if we receive a valid request from an authorized entity, we reserve the right to restrict content in a particular country," Reddit said in the post. "We will work to find ways to make this process more transparent and streamlined as Reddit continues to grow globally."
Reddit has been having a tough time lately figuring out how to stay true to its free-speech roots while maturing into a profit-driven, investor-accountable corporation. Last month, recently returned Reddit CEO Steve Huffman announced a confusing new set of rules for what can exist on Reddit that bans some hateful content while still allowing some to persist, albeit "quarantined" behind a clickwall.
After Reddit announced that it would block the drug post in Russia, the mushroom post author, rsocfan, updated the post to include a link to a story titled, "This is how Russian Internet censorship works."
Last year, Russia ordered Facebook, Twitter and Google to base servers in the country in order to comply with new internet legislation that required “organizers of information distribution" to retain records of user activity for six months so that authorities can access it. Frequently, though, social networks and website like Reddit have chosen to ignore local regulation in countries where they don't have a corporate presence.
As former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao pointed out in the Washington Post last month, balancing freedom of expression with protection of the the internet’s citizens is only getting harder.
As Reddit continues to grow, it will be increasingly forced to make calls about what kind of content can and should exist on the site. Reddit's approach has been attempting to please everyone—those who believe that the freedom to say anything you want is an inherent right as well as those who believe the internet is a place where everyone should feel safe. Unfortunately for Reddit management, so far, it seems no one is pleased.