Reddit Is Less of a Lawless Free-for-All Than It Thinks It Is

Taking down illegal or objectionable subreddits doesn't make Reddit any less of a bastion of free speech, but it does make it less horrible than it was before.

Sep 30 2014, 8:45am

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the birth and subsequent charity efforts of the Fappening, Reddit’s newly created subreddit (which later became multiple subreddits) devoted to housing celebrity nudes. The Fappening subreddits popped up when nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities were leaked on 4chan. They were controversial from the beginning, sparking questions of where privacy met “free speech,” a favorite buzzword of Redditors. These were private nude photos, on the one hand. But on the other hand, what about free speech? “Guys,” Redditors cried, “we cannot forget about free speech, whatever that means, we are not entirely sure but it usually involves naked women. This is the way our forefathers would have wanted it!”

But only days after that, Reddit took down both Fappening subreddits. Many Redditors lamented what they perceived as a loss of precious free speech, and criticized Reddit for “censorship,” both common cries any time Reddit takes down a subreddit. That’s probably because, historically, taking down a subreddit has been fairly uncommon. Reddit, which journalist Adrian Chen aptly described as a “safe space for male libertarian undergraduate computer science majors to complain about women,” has in the past made a point of letting controversial subreddits exist without interference from the top. You might remember r/jailbait, the subreddit for sexually suggestive but not technically pornographic photos of underage girls (some taken without the subjects' knowledge). Jailbait was the subject of controversy for years, but Reddit CEO Yishan Wong stood firm in his (and Reddit’s) belief in “free speech,” refusing to shut it down. You might also remember r/ creepshots, the subreddit where you could post photographs of women (sometimes “upskirts,” sometimes close-ups of breasts) taken unbeknownst to the women. Initially, when news of these subreddits incensed the non-Redditing public, Wong held strong, repeating that Reddit would not “ban legal content even if [they] find it odious or if [they] personally condemn it.”

But Jailbait was eventually shut down in 2011, after much negative media attention and, finally, a power struggle between Jailbait moderators (a.k.a. the definition of hell). In its official rules section, Reddit now bans both child pornography and “sexually suggestive content featuring minors.” Creepshots only existed for part of 2012, a much shorter life than Jailbait had, and was shut down after Adrian Chen “doxxed” Michael Brutsch, a Creepshot moderator and frighteningly disgusting guy. (Brutsch was also responsible for the creation and moderation of dozens of other subreddits that purposely pushed the limits of taste, including “Misogyny,” “Incest,” and “Rapebait.” None of those subreddits exist anymore.)

When reached for comment, Victoria Taylor, Reddit’s director of communications, told me that Creepshots was not banned. Rather, “the creator and mod of that subreddit was threatened or blackmailed by someone, and subsequently asked [Reddit] to close the subreddit for him. [Reddit was] not intending to ban that subreddit and later made a statement saying [they] would not ban similar subreddits.”

Reddit has historically positioned itself as a sort of lawless Wild West where fights are won with free speech instead of guns. That may have been true in the early days, but it is mercifully growing less true by the day. Reddit’s decision to shut down the Fappening subreddits happened within a matter of days, a much quicker action than they have ever taken on previous subreddits. Systems administrator Jason Harvey explained that he shut down the Fappening subreddits for several pragmatic reasons: DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) requests to take down the photos were pouring in, people were posting photos of underage girls more quickly than mods could delete them, and the sheer volume of traffic was essentially breaking the site. Harvey wrote that he personally found the leaked photos “deplorable,” but Reddit wanted to make it clear that this was not a change in their laissez-faire policies toward subreddits. Yishan Wong, in a post dramatically titled “Every Man is Responsible for His Own Soul,” wrote that despite the Fappening subreddits shutting down, Reddit would not be changing any of its policies:

...while current US law does not prohibit linking to stolen materials, we deplore the theft of these images and we do not condone their widespread distribution. Nevertheless, reddit’s platform is structurally based on the ability for people to distribute, promote, and highlight textual materials as well as links to images and other media. We understand the harm that misusing our site does to the victims of this theft, and we deeply sympathize. Having said that, we are unlikely to make changes to our existing site content policies in response to this specific event.

That’s a lot of conflicting information in one paragraph, but it boils down to this: “We are banning this objectionable thing for legal reasons. We want you to still think of us as guardians of free speech. But also we want you to know that we hate the objectionable thing. But that’s not why we banned it."

Reddit is the cool babysitter. “Look, if it were up to us, we wouldn’t even have bedtimes, but you know, rules are rules.” That said, at least one Fappening-related subreddit still exists. That subreddit is FappeningDiscussion, which does not post direct links to celebrity nudes, but rather tells users where to find them. Victoria Taylor stated that “[Reddit does] not plan to ban /r/fappeningdiscussion,” but clarified that the subreddit is still subject to the same site rules that all subreddits are.

In a nutshell, Reddit does ban some objectionable content: the objectionable content that violates their site rules. But that’s not contradictory to what our legal notion of “free speech” is. All “free” speech, including that outlined in our own First Amendment, is limited in some way—which is why the notion of free speech doesn't protect your right to distribute obscene materials, to disregard a school administration's policies, or to do anything outright illegal. Free speech has never meant “do or say whatever you want at any time without consequence.”

These days, Reddit responds to objectionable subreddits more quickly than they ever did. And that’s how it should be. But the company shouldn’t feel the need to repeat ad nauseam their commitment to free speech, as Wong did in the aforementioned post. By responding to public criticism and following its own basic rules, Reddit has simply become less of a hellhole than it was two years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s a paradise. Reddit still allows the existence of crazy fringe subreddits (r/whiterights) and bafflingly disgusting ones (r/picsofdeadkids). And of course, r/fappeningdiscussion remains in existence. Reddit is still a huge message board on the internet. By its very nature, it is hell. But if there now exists one less message board titled “Rapebait,” I’d call that a good thing. I would not call it censorship, or some sort of devastating loss of free speech. I would call it the basics of human decency, and a teeny step toward progress. It’s a little silly for Reddit to pretend it’s still the anything-goes cesspool it was in its early days. There’s no shame in admitting that your site is now a little less horrible than it once was.

Follow Allegra Ringo on Twitter.

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously referred to the DCMA (Defense Contract Management Agency) instead of the DMCA, (Digital Millennium Copyright Act). The term has been replaced, and the sentence has been revised.