Reddit and the False Ideal of Online “Free Speech”

Reddit was ground zero for a significant portion of the proliferation of the stolen celebrity photos that occurred last week. I didn’t follow the events as they happened, but they caused a lot of internal strife within the Reddit community. Save a few select subreddits I am much more withdrawn from the website than I was a year ago, and for good reason.

Reddit administrator yishan wrote a blog post announcement in response to the issue.(1)alienth made further clarification that doesn’t change my opinion of the original very much at all. In it, he makes several statements that I find indefensible or profoundly weak answers to very serious problems on their website.

Last weekend, reddit was used as one of the primary centers of distribution of private and unlawfully obtained images of celebrities.

In accordance with our legal obligations, we expeditiously removed content hosted on our servers as soon as we received DMCA requests from the lawful owners of that content, and in cases where the images were not hosted on our servers, we promptly directed them to the hosts of those services.

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.

Yeah, Reddit was a major distribution zone. That’s a big problem. Good, they responded to DMCA requests as legally required. Feels like they could have done more, though. Let’s read on.

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.

…What? They’re doing nothing? They’re addressing this problem… in no way at all?!

The reason is because we consider ourselves not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community. The role and responsibility of a government differs from that of a private corporation, in that it exercises restraint in the usage of its powers.


The philosophy behind this stems from the idea that each individual is responsible for his or her moral actions.

We uphold the ideal of free speech on reddit as much as possible not because we are legally bound to, but because we believe that you – the user – has the right to choose between right and wrong, good and evil, and that it is your responsibility to do so. When you know something is right, you should choose to do it. But as much as possible, we will not force you to do it.

You choose what to post. You choose what to read. You choose what kind of subreddit to create and what kind of rules you will enforce. We will try not to interfere – not because we don’t care, but because we care that you make your choices between right and wrong.

Virtuous behavior is only virtuous if it is not arrived at by compulsion. This is a central idea of the community we are trying to create.

Talk about passing the buck. This is the most monumentally bullshit answer to a call for action and change I have seen in a very long time. Reddit “deplore[s] the theft” and they “do not condone” the distribution. They “deeply sympathize” with the harm done by it. But they will take no action?! That renders their words as nothing more than platitudes. They are pointless and useless.

Their defense of inaction is an appeal to a visionary plan of democratic utopia. What kind of misguided, childish game are they playing? Do they not understand their pet project is at the expense of the well-being of people both in and outside of it?

Okay. Let’s talk about what’s so wrong with this answer.

A functioning democracy needs to allow as much speech as possible to prevent tyranny. It’s a necessary right the people must have to be able to express grievances. To start imposing censorship laws on the people beyond what is necessary (preventing “fire” in a crowd, for example, is necessary) may invite more and more restrictions infringing upon important, productive speech.

This speech is important because it influences the rights of individual citizens. Toying with actual free speech can have severe consequences, risking the stability and well-being of people and their nation.


A private website, community, business, or home, in contrast, does not hold the same risk and is not obligated to the same standard. The collapse of any of these institutions would not result in a loss of personal freedom or risk the destruction of the country itself. A website going down, a group of friends dissolving, or a company folding does not impact an individual’s rights or ability to express oneself. It may deny them an audience, but that is not a right.

I would argue that these private institutions are not only unobligated to espouse free speech, but that they should impose behavior restrictions to create more habitable and welcoming environments. I believe this is where the future of positive online spaces will be.

How is it a virtuous pursuit at all to create a work environment where any type of speech is allowed? Human resources departments exist for a reason. It’s not up to individual employees to pressure inappropriate individuals into better behavior. They should face consequences or leave.

Why is it better to tolerate assholes at your house party in hopes that they eventually change their ways? Why should you subject your other guests to this process?

Why is the ideal of a group of people who could act badly but don’t (which will not happen at Reddit’s current trajectory anyway) more important than creating and cultivating an actual, positive environment with protective rules?

Even within Reddit we see successes and failures along these lines. /r/AskScience and /r/AskHistorians are fantastic subreddits because their moderators are tireless in deleting asininity. Over time I have no doubt this fostered a culture of more intelligent discussion. In contrast, /r/spacedicks remains one of many fetid warts on the underbelly of the website, allowing anything legal.

Again, there are costs to what Reddit is experimenting with. Racism, homophobia, sexism, abuse, hate, and entitlement all receive safe haven on Reddit. Reddit is a platform for hate groups to organize, grow in number, embolden, and take action. These groups don’t just invade other subreddits and create horrid environments. They cause harm outside of the website’s community: contributing to a culture of spreading and popularizing child pornography, breaking traffic numbers by linking to stolen photos of celebrities(2)Ashamedly, alienth says, but with no action., and providing space for racism. Reddit also slightly profited off of each of these situations with user-paid gifts of gold to other users.

Look, I get it. Policing Reddit is hard. There are millions of users and even more posts and comments. It’s a game of whack-a-mole. But the answer is not to relinquish responsibility. It’s not to pass the buck down to users, either. And it’s absolutely not to appeal to some high-minded project as a pitiful excuse.

Don’t say you’re ashamed or angry and come up with a terrible excuse to do nothing. Reddit needs to fundamentally change. Some basic standards need to be adopted. This idiotic ideal will not materialize, and Reddit needs to understand the costs of this fruitless endeavor. 4chan is not a model to look up to.

Reddit: create stronger rules and hold volunteer mods accountable to them. Take stances on issues and make choices on what you’ll tolerate. Over time the shitheads will find other places, hopefully less convenient, to gather. It’s either this or continue to slink down into the shithole that other online communities exist in. Reddit will go down with its ship of idealism.(3)The perfect is the enemy of the good.

I’ll leave with the podcast TLDR’s tweet that pops this idealist bubble, as well:

Agreed. This should be seen as unconscionable. More people need to be talking about how pathetic, harmful, and mentally askew this response is.

Notes   [ + ]

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  1. Pingback: “The Ratio” at Georgia Tech is about more than dating | Enduring Beta

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