menu

James Ball: Reddit Wants To Pick And Choose What Is Free Speech

James Ball: Reddit Wants To Pick And Choose What Is Free Speech
technology

Reddit used free speech to defend its forums of pictures of young girls but blocked Gawker for 'outing' the man behind them.

James Ball, The Guardian
  • 16 october 2012


Powered by Guardian.co.uk
This article titled “Reddit wants free speech – as long as it agrees with the speaker” was written by James Ball, for guardian.co.uk on Monday 15th October 2012 12.15 UTC

Reddit is the biggest and most influential website you’ve probably never heard of. The self-styled “home page of the internet”, it can pull in more than 3bn page views a month. An article posted on its front page can expect to pull in half a million extra visitors, at minimum – and it was given extra gravitas last month when it was judged worthy of an online campaign stop by President Barack Obama himself.

But just when it should be celebrating a moment of triumph and recognition, the site has been thrown into chaos by a bitter row stemming from its seamy underbelly – and it’s a row that could have far wider consequences across the internet. The problem stems from several boards on the site (knows as “subreddits”) concentrating on “creepshots” and “jailbait” – sneaked photos, taken on the street or lifted from profiles – which focused on obtaining and publishing revealing pictures (including upskirt shots) of unwitting women, or underage girls.

After sustained outcry, the site banned most of these subreddits, but Gawker writer Adrian Chen – a journalist who regularly seeks online notoriety, often successfully – had tracked down the real identity of the man behind many of these forums, interviewed him, and on Friday published a lengthy article “outing” him.

Reddit reacted furiously, in large part because the user, “violentacrez”, was a prominent one and on friendly terms with many of the people who run the site.

New media’s reaction to the dilemma was far more extreme than that of old media: Reddit moved to stamp out the article, and punish its writer. The volunteer moderators who run many of the largest sections of Reddit elected not just to ban links to that particular article, or even articles by that particular writer – instead, they imposed a ban on all links to Gawker, or any other sites affiliated with it. Want to post a link to Gawker’s stories on Bain Capital’s internal documents on Reddit? You can’t. For a time, the site’s paid staff even introduced a site-wide ban on links to the article, before backtracking.

Why is this any more than just a stupid online argument between Gawker and some forum moderators? The answer lies in Reddit’s almost unique online role. Unlike many other sites similar in scale, Reddit has stayed fairly true to the anarchic, freewheeling spirit of the early internet. Baffling to outsiders, Reddit is laced with memes, trends – and as a result, a certain political culture is shared among a huge swath of its user base.

At the core of that is a veneration for free speech and a free internet that borders on the obsessive: the successful battle against US anti-piracy bills Sopa and Pipa was driven from Reddit, as was much of the online resistance to the subsequent (defeated) cyber-security bill Cispa. Redditors are regularly among the first to rage at any hint of “corporate censorship” from Google, Twitter or Facebook. They’ve also regularly come to the defence of sites sharing links to copyrighted content – based around a precedent in US law that a hyperlink is speech, and so protected under the first amendment.

Free speech is also the argument respected Redditors have used time and again to defend the site’s sleazy side. Hey, they say, we don’t like these guys posting upskirt shots of women, but … it’s free speech!

All of which makes the actions of Reddit’s core community, the volunteers who run most of the site – backed up tacitly by the staff – so bizarre and counterproductive. Reddit’s mods aren’t boycotting a site they dislike: they’re imposing a ban against it on millions of users. They haven’t reluctantly imposed censorship to comply with national law, or even with Reddit’s own policies (the site is vehemently against trying to “out” users’ real identities). Instead, they’ve issued retaliatory bans against a writer, and his outlet, because they don’t like what he is saying.

Reddit’s new stance appears to be that free speech is great – as long it’s speech it agrees with. Which is a position the RIAA (which seeks to close sites linking to pirate content), or even China’s Communist party could happily agree with.

It really has created the perfect Platonic form of fail: not only have the members of Reddit’s core community made themselves look like hypocrites on an issue incredibly close to their userbase’s heart, they have done it in order to protect a user who created forums to post content which was at best sleazy, and which at its worst bordered on the paedophilic. For those trying to change the law in ways Reddit dislikes, Christmas, Easter and several birthdays have come all at once.

At minimum, the farrago reveals that a site with huge influence in selecting which stories and content will take off online is less democratic by far than it appears – and is instead subject to huge control by an apparently capricious group of mods. At worst, the row will undermine the causes their tens, at times hundreds, of millions of users stand for. Next time Reddit issues the battle cry against a new law affecting the internet, who will saddle up?

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

Image via DeviantArt

Trending

Bicycle Hotel In Norway Makes Commuting A Breeze

Design & Architecture
Technology Today

Umbrella Tells You Whether It's Needed Before You Go Out

Opus One was designed by former Samsung engineers and offers a weather forecast via the flashing LED on top

Sustainability Today

Biocomposite Skateboard Provides An Eco-Friendly Ride

The Uitto is an eco-friendly skate deck crafted from Norwegian wood fibers

Trending

Get PSFK's Related Report: Future of Automotive

See All
Work Today

Hyatt Honors Travelers With A 3D-Printed Statue Contest

The hospitality wanted to celebrate the people who go everywhere for work and make sure their tasks were not forgotten

Syndicated Today

High-Tech Replica Brings Prehistoric Art Within Reach

A £48m recreation of the Lascaux Caves in France will let visitors experience the unique place for the first time in decades

Related Expert

Danah Boyd

Data, Advocacy, Privacy

Entertainment Today

Tripod Lets You Make Snapchat Videos Hands-Free

The Camkix kit lets you record wirelessly from any angle

IoT Today

GE Develops An Alexa-Enabled Table Lamp

The first in a line of interconnected home products will integrate Amazon's voice-activated system for smarter home living

Advertising Today

Spotify Mines User Data To Create A Global Ad Campaign

The series of billboards relays the feelings that people express through listening to music

PSFK LABS REPORT

Future Of Retail 2017
Transformation Strategies For Customer-First Business
NEW

PSFK Op-Ed Today

Commerce Expert: Why Brick-And-Mortar Shopping Can’t Be Replaced

Erin Armendinger, SVP of bio, explains the physical need of customers to experience certain products before buying

PSFK Labs december 1, 2016

Retail Spotlight: Home Depot Reimagines How Employees Conduct Tasks

The home improvement retailer puts the customer first by initiating local fulfillment centers and simplifying freight-to-shelf inventory management

Food Today

What Material Research In Beirut Bodes For Our Waste Crisis

Might building furniture and lights out of rose petals and coffee grounds point to more sustainable modes of living, as seen in Beirut Design Week?

Social Media Today

This Collar Wants To Be The Bridge Between Human-Dog Communication

Inupathy claims to be world's first dog emotion visualizer

Retail Today

Basquiat-Inspired Fashion Line Supports Emerging Talent

The late artist's estate has collaborated with New York label alice+olivia on a new range of designs

Retail Today

Why Personalization Is The Key To Customer Satisfaction

Andrew Blackmon of The Black Tux shares how the company is using machine-learning models to streamline the fitting process

Gaming & Play Today

Fidgeting Tools Designed To Help Creative Minds Focus

The DIDGETS Collection helps those who have anxiety or are restlessly moving to focus while they are working

PSFK EVENT

FUTURE OF RETAIL 2017:
Conference Built Around Report Launch
BUY TICKETS

Children Today

Helpful Robot Teaches People Of All Ages How To Code

The Root has coding expertise designed to benefit a wide range of people

Home Today

Sharing Service Connects Directors With Film Locations

Finding affordable places to film can be difficult, so GETset was designed to help creators easily find good locations

Technology Today

Adobe Is Teaching Machines To Copy Your Artistic Style

A new research project called Stylit uses a camera to mimic a drawing and reproduce the strokes digitally

No search results found.