Follow-Up: A Few Questions About Reddit's Stance On Free Speech
My post yesterday about the dispute over Gawker outing a Reddit moderator generated a lot of interest and discussion. I'd like to revisit the issue in light of a statement by Reddit CEO Yishan Wong. Gawker published that statement here.
Wong's core statement of Reddit's support for free speech is this:
We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it. Not because that's the law in the United States – because as many people have pointed out, privately-owned forums are under no obligation to uphold it – but because we believe in that ideal independently, and that's what we want to promote on our platform. We are clarifying that now because in the past it wasn't clear, and (to be honest) in the past we were not completely independent and there were other pressures acting on reddit. Now it's just reddit, and we serve the community, we serve the ideals of free speech, and we hope to ultimately be a universal platform for human discourse (cat pictures are a form of discourse).
These are admirable goals. It's a good thing for sites like Reddit to create free-speech platforms, particularly in light of the sort of pervasive threats to free speech we like to discuss here at Popehat.
Wong follows up with the exceptions:
Our rules today include the following two exceptions:
1. We will ban illegal content, and in addition sexualized pictures of minors, immediately upon any reports to us. We gave our rationale for that back when that issue was resolved, and we will maintain that policy for the same reasons.
2. We will ban the posting of personal information (doxxing), because it incites violence and harassment against specific individuals.
It's important to emphasize as a starting point that as a private actor, Reddit is free to restrict whatever speech it likes. In fact, Reddit is free to call itself a free speech platform and then still restrict any speech it likes. The only consequences are social ones, barring breach of contract or fraud (if, for instance, Reddit were in the business of selling membership based on a promise of free speech, then restricted it, you might have a cause of action).
However, observers of Reddit have free speech rights as well. Reddit's stance is fair game for criticism and inquiry.
Take a look at Wong's explanation of the anti-doxxing policy:
The current events have made it clear that the implementation of #2 requires some development. Those of us who've been around are familiar with the reasons behind that rule, the destructive witchhunts in reddit's past against both users and mods – even people who had no idea what ‘reddit' was – prompted by suspicion and ire, and often ending with undeserved harassment, death threats, job loss, or worse for the affected individual. Even reddit's favorite journalist Adrian Chen once wrote an article decrying the practice and mob mentality behind it (see: http://gawker.com/5751581/misguided-internet-vigilantes-attack-college-students-cancer-fundraiser).
But our ability to enforce policy ends at the edges of our platform. And one of the key functions of our platform is the sharing of content on the internet. I'm sure you see the problem.
So we must draw a line, and we've chosen to do the following:
1. We will ban doxxing posted to reddit.
2. We will ban links to pages elsewhere which are trivially or primarily intended for the purposes of doxxing (e.g. wikis or blogs primarily including dox).
Wong follows up later:
We do believe that doxxing is a form of violence, rather unique to the internet. Even innocent individuals can be accidentally targeted due to mistaken identities – a key difference between online mobs versus with journalists who have a system of professional accountability. And we believe that while we can prohibit it on our platform, we can only affect the opinion of others outside of reddit via moral suasion and setting an example. From the time when reddit first banned doxxing on its platform, I feel that there has been a change in the general attitude towards doxxing on the internet. It's still widespread, but we made a clear statement that it was a bad thing, worth exercising restraint over.
This leaves me with some questions.
To whom does the anti-doxxing policy apply? I think it's clear that Reddit means its anti-doxxing policy to prohibit Redditors from posting the "personal information" of Reddit users — that is, it prohibits "outing" Redditors.
But does it prohibit "outing" non-Redditors?
For instance, this week Anonymous outed someone they accused of driving Canadian teen Amanda Todd to suicide through vile conduct. Can a Redditor do that on Reddit, if the person outed is not a Redditor, or didn't bully the teen on Reddit? Can a Redditor link to an Anonymous site that is primarily intended to out the bad guy?
Does the policy only apply to online conduct? Does the anti-doxxing rule only apply to pseudo-anonymous or anonymous online conduct, or to real life conduct as well? Assuming these two louts aren't Redditors, would a Redditor be allowed to post on Reddit something like this piece at Above the Law, identifying two law students who killed an exotic bird at a Vegas casino? What about someone like, say, Jennifer Petkov, the woman who mocked and harassed a dying seven-year-old neighbor — would the doxxing ban prohibit someone from releasing personal information on Reddit about her, perhaps by digging up court records of arrests or child custody disputes?
Let me give you another example. After yesterday's "Town Hall" debate, some people researched whether a purported undecided questioner was actually a political operative from an interest group. Would that sort of analysis — which involved inquiry into the name and suspected work contact information of the individual — be banned on Reddit under the anti-doxxing rule?
Or, in another example, let's say someone is accused of a terrible crime and their name is published in a local paper. Would the anti-doxxing policy prohibit Redditors from, say, researching and then linking on Reddit to his Facebook page, or the web page for his employer? What about pulling the person's criminal records and posting them?
Why I Care
I ask these things because I'm trying to get at the heart of what Reddit is actually doing. Are they trying to prevent real-world harm — or are they trying to create a space where the expression of their own members is insulated from real-world consequences, including social consequences? I ask these things because, though I think anonymity should enjoy protections from the government, I don't think that it's clear that insulating anonymity from private inquiry is a free-speech value. Can the prospect of being outed "chill" speech? Of course. But anonymous harassment and abuse can "chill" speech as well. I tend to argue that the remedy for the chilling effect of anonymous harassment and abuse — if it doesn't break the law — is more speech. I think that more speech is the right remedy for the chilling impact of outing as well. It's not clear to me why it is principled to give anonymity preferential status.
If Reddit's anti-doxxing policy would not prevent the outing of Amanda Todd's tormentor, or the outing of the accused bird-killers, or finding and posting the Facebook pages or company web sites of people in the news, then I have to ask how sincere they are about their concerns regarding "undeserved harassment, death threats, job loss, or worse." If the position is "Redditors will be protected from outing here, but non-Redditors will not," then, well, that's an ethos, but I'm not sure it's one worthy of any respect.
Again, Reddit can run their show any way they like, and can set up any rules they like and put the label "free speech" on it. But the accuracy of the label, and the credibility of their justifications for exceptions to it, are fair game for discussion.
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