Last year, after reddit was used to spread hacked private photos of celebrities, then CEO Yishan Wong was heavily criticized by users for taking down the subreddits doing so, only to insist that the platform was committed to free speech, no matter how unsavory. Last week, after a negative reaction to a policy change by new CEO Ellen Paot that included banning five subreddits (including the very popular “/r/fatpeoplehate”) because they caused real-life harassment, Wong wrote a post on Quora about why he supports her move.
With the qualification that he no longer speaks for the company, and that his opinion is based on possibly outdated knowledge, here’s how he sums up his thoughts:
/r/fatpeoplehate was not banned for hating on fat people. You can do that on reddit. /r/fatpeoplehate was banned because its users were targeting people off of reddit and harassing them. Upon investigation, it was found that not only were the mods participating in it, they were at times even encouraging it.
reddit is right to ban communities that organize or facilitate the off-site harassment of people.
While the fear is that the new policy will seek to ban “morally bad” content, subreddits that make fun of or demean people, or those that focus on certain ideas, the site is still full of some pretty awful stuff. Pao said in her statement on the ban that the policy centers on “banning behavior not ideas.” People are still allowed to harass each other on reddit.
The distinction in this case, explains Wong, is that the banned subreddits were causing real world harm despite moderators’ efforts to stop it. Wong argues the new rules uphold the same free speech ideal he appealed to when modifying policy after the photo hack in 2014:
To make an analogy: The United States does not outlaw groups that discuss, mock, or demonize certain ethnicities. What this situation is more like is if some group in the United States decide to do that and then began organizing trips overseas to other countries to unlawfully attack or harm people of that ethnicity. Those countries would be right to petition the United States to exercise some control over its citizens, and it would be right to outlaw or curtail the activities of that group.
In sum, he says: “You are free to be an asshole on reddit (within communities whose mods allow it), but keep it on reddit.”
The question going forward will be where to draw the line, since “real-life harm” is difficult to define, especially when it involves the internet.