Reddit's CEO Steve Huffman Unveils Controversial Free Speech Policy, Dodges Ellen Pao Issue

It was supposed to be the AMA to beat them all.

It was supposed to be Reddit's opportunity to have a real heart to heart with its new CEO-- Steve Huffman--and iron out all those free speech kinks that the past few weeks have created on the front (and back) pages of the Internet.

Instead, Thursday's 'Let's Talk Content AMA' with Huffman turned into politically correct small talk that failed to address one of the largest white elephants that has been lurking in Reddit's forums: Ellen Pao.

Huffman stepped into Pao's CEO shoes a week ago and in a "right-kids-this-what's-going-to-change' move, he announced Reddit's big plans to tackle the darkest and most vile corners of the Internet.

And this is it:

These types of content are prohibited:

  • Spam
  • Anything illegal (i.e. things that are actually illegal, such as copyrighted material. Discussing illegal activities, such as drug use, is not illegal)
  • Publication of someone’s private and confidential information
  • Anything that incites harm or violence against an individual or group of people (it's ok to say "I don't like this group of people." It's not ok to say, "I'm going to kill this group of people.")
  • Anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people (these behaviors intimidate others into silence)
  • Sexually suggestive content featuring minors

There are other types of content that are specifically classified:

  • Adult content must be flagged as NSFW (Not Safe For Work). Users must opt into seeing NSFW communities. This includes pornography, which is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.
  • Similar to NSFW, another type of content that is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it, is the content that violates a common sense of decency. This classification will require a login, must be opted into, will not appear in search results or public listings, and will generate no revenue for Reddit.

The nature of rules, especially ones associated with the "unfettered free speech" are that they will never fully please anybody.

Some, mainly those who desperately want the platform to be the bastion of free speech thought Huffman's approach was too heavy handed while others didn't think Huffman went far enough.

Under the new rules, that are yet to be implemented, racist, mysogynistic and homophobic subreddits could still exist on the site. The only difference is that users will now require logins to access the content.

This is not to say Reddit can't make up its mind on vile Internet content. Earlier this year, Reddit banned rape pornography.

However, Huffman is reluctant to adopt this approach to the entire Reddit universe because of what he describes as the platform's purpose.

The reason we’re careful to restrict speech is because people have more open and authentic discussions when they aren't worried about the speech police knocking down their door. When our purpose comes into conflict with a policy, we make sure our purpose wins.

One Redditor's question about BDSM between two consenting adults, puts the crux of the argument into perspective.

Darr_Syn asked: At what point do the minority opinion and positions be accepted as obscene, offensive, and unwanted?

BDSM between two consenting adults has been seen and labeled as both offensive and obscene for decades now.

Huffman responded with a capital punishment analogy:

I can tell you with confidence that these specific communities are not what we are referring to. Not even close.

But this is also why I prefer separation over banning. Banning is like capital punishment, and we don't want to do it except in the clearest of cases.

While most would agree that some of its content needs to face capital punishment -- although given the nature of Reddit and the Internet at large, where content never dies -- it is a line that Reddit has found increasingly hard to draw.

As Huffman explains, although he founded the platform it was never meant to project his world view on others.

As we grew, I became increasingly uncomfortable projecting my worldview on others. More practically, I didn’t have time to pass judgement on everything, so I decided to judge nothing.

So we entered a phase that can best be described as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. This worked temporarily, but once people started paying attention, few liked what they found. A handful of painful controversies usually resulted in the removal of a few communities, but with inconsistent reasoning and no real change in policy.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, former CEO Ellen Pao said "trolls are winning the battle for the internet..." and her successor's latest policy, may just prove her right.