Reddit announced that five groups — which targeted blacks, gays and the obese — would be removed from the site. The decision came with the announcement of a new harassment policy for the site.
"TL;DR: We are unhappy with harassing behavior on reddit; we have survey data that show our users are, too. So we’ve improved our practices to better curb harassment of individuals on reddit."
Rather than painting the removal of groups as a step away from free expression, a post from Reddit CEO Ellen Pao frames them as part of the same set of goals — since harassment of an individual can prevent or discourage their free participation in discussions.
"Our goal is to enable as many people as possible to have authentic conversations and share ideas and content on an open platform. We want as little involvement as possible in managing these interactions but will be involved when needed to protect privacy and free expression, and to prevent harassment," Pao wrote Wednesday.
Pao explained that the banned groups were specifically targeting individuals. The largest group — or subreddit — that was banned was known as r/fatpeoplehate, which Reddit said was the only banned group with more than 5,000 members.
"We will ban subreddits that allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action, " Pao wrote.
"We’re banning behavior, not ideas."
In response, some are crying "censorship" and predicting the downfall of the site.
The conservative news and opinion site Breitbart, for instance, said that fears of "a new age of censorship" under Ellen Pao "appear to have come true" and that the removal of the five subreddits indicate that "Reddit admins may have finally crossed the Rubicon on the road to alienating their user base."
— Brad Wardell (@draginol) June 11, 2015
Perhaps unsurprisingly, people are likening Ellen Pao to history's tyrants. Pao — as an Asian-American woman who sued Twitter for sex discrimination — is no stranger to racist, sexist online harassment directed at her person.
In fact, prior to the banning of the five groups, some Redditors had complained that Reddit was removing links to material discussing her case. And post-ban, there are plenty of nasty things being said about her.
— The Gaming Ground (@TheGamingGround) June 11, 2015
The criticism even reached the cliched hysteria of Hitler comparisons.
— Portlandist (@PortlandistME) June 11, 2015
Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, however, came out in support of the site's decision, tweeting out a link to another Redditor's favorable comment on the new policy.
— Alexis Ohanian (@alexisohanian) June 10, 2015
And despite vocal opposition, as Pao mentioned, their user feedback indicated that, overall, people wanted some curbing of harassment.
"Last month, we conducted a survey of over 15,000 redditors — these are people who are part of the reddit community — that showed negative responses to comments have made people uncomfortable contributing or even recommending reddit to others. The number one reason redditors do not recommend the site—even though they use it themselves—is because they want to avoid exposing friends to hate and offensive content."
And, if incoming funds are any indication, the vocal displeasure of some users doesn't seem to affect their daily goal.
— Randi Harper (@freebsdgirl) June 11, 2015
US Speech is Protected from Government Intervention. Not Consequences.
But what is censorship? And how are free speech rights defined?
— Freddie Wong (@fwong) June 11, 2015
In the US, the First Amendment protects Americans from government intervention that either prevents them from saying what they want to say (or sing, or paint, or create expressively) or from government sanction after the fact.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
"Congress" shall make no law. The amendment makes no mention of or prohibition of individual people or private entities such as Reddit reacting to, criticizing, or revoking privileges because of an individual's expressed ideas.
— Imperator Dickens (@MildlyAmused) June 11, 2015
So, in legal terms, the decision of a private company to revoke access to their product for the purposes of harassment isn't an issue of censorship, strictly speaking.
The ban has raised questions about the future of the site, who uses it, and what the Reddit team's goals are for the forum.
Reddit feels that harassment turns people off their product, and makes users unwilling to join in the wide-ranging, envelope-pushing discussions the site is known for. So the company sees the bans as encouraging freer expression, a sentiment seconded by University of Maryland law professor James Grimmelmann in a tweet.
— James Grimmelmann (@grimmelm) June 10, 2015
"Instead of promoting free expression of ideas, we are seeing our open policies stifling free expression; people avoid participating for fear of their personal and family safety," the Reddit policy announcement said. So, curbing hateful or harassing speech may open it up to a wider pool of users, not just those who are willing to overlook or put up with harassment.
— Reginald Braithwaite (@raganwald) June 11, 2015