The CEO of the online community Reddit has defended its members' rights to free speech after the identity of one its most controversial members was revealed online.
Reddit is a popular and hugely diverse website which contains bulletin boards on virtually any subject, including politics, technology and culture. But the website has long been under fire for allowing users to maintain boards ('subReddits') that are overwhelmingly viewed as distasteful.
Earlier this year it decided, while under massive pressure, to ban sexualised, albeit technically legal images of minors from its site - which its admins had previously defended - after a subReddit named 'Jailbait' was condemned online and in the mainstream press.
Other boards dedicated to violence and sexualised images of strangers continue to exist in various forms on the site, however, and the criticism is still widespread - even by those who regularly use its mainstream areas.
Recently the website Gawker decided to expose what it called "[Reddit's] most powerful creep", a user named Violentacrez who was involved in moderating many of its most controversial subReddits, including those dedicated to underage women and violence, and publish his real name.
Violentacrez was later fired from his job, and is now soliciting donations from the site's users and preparing for an interview with CNN.
After Gawker's post was published, Reddit's unpaid and largely autonomous moderators widely censored all links from the publisher, outraged that one of their own had been named ("doxxed"). Many did this because under Reddit's own rules, users cannot dox users because "it incites violence and harassment".
Now the company's CEO Yishan Wong has issued his own memo on the "recent crisis", in which he explained to Reddit's mods that they could not put a blanket ban on "investigative journalism" even if it doxxed Reddit mods.
First he defended the site's right to publish and host content that was in bad taste, if it was not illegal.
"We stand for free speech," he wrote. "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)."
But he also said that while doxxing would continue to be banned on Reddit, and pages "primarily intended for the purposes of doxxing" would also be banned, the site could not ban "legitimate investigative journalism".
"We recognize that there will be a continuum between trivially obvious doxxing sites (e.g. a wiki page entitled "Collect the dox here!") and "true" journalism, but the world requires judgment calls so the area in between will be where we focus our efforts in adjudication."
Wong added that a site-wide ban on Gawker would not stop the impact of its users being named, if another site decided to do that, but would actually raise the story's profile. He also said, bluntly, that "this ban on links from the gawker network is not making reddit look so good".
"All of us at reddit work here because we think that reddit is a community like none other. We think it can be a powerful force to change the world for the better. There are numerous examples of how we - all together - have already begun to do this in small and large ways. And I think that part of our ability to do so lies in our ability to set an example with our actions and decisions. In our case as admins, we chose to recognize that opponents have the right to criticize us, to expose us, to tell a story about us - even if we don't like that story or we feel it's wrong. So we reversed the site-level ban on Chen's gawker piece."
The memo was criticised by some of Reddit's mods, however, who said it was imprecise and did not adequately protect its users. Some also asked for additional privacy measures to ensure they would not be named in future.
Reddit is a subsidiary of Condé Nast's parent company, Advance Publications.
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