On July 16th, Reddit announced a ban on some offensive content, and a policy of concealing other content to prevent easy access of display to readers. This two-tiered approach to offensive content was novel, and a response to conflicting demands for an open forum and for a site free of racist posts, for example.
A few kinds of content, including child pornography or other patently illegal activities, were banned:
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
A second category wasn’t banned, but instead restricted:
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.
A subreddit that was to be concealed was the astonishingly crude, inveterately racist subreddit /r/Coontown, to offer a sense of how offensive some of this content was.
How long would Reddit be able to keep some of these subreddits (even if concealed) in the name of free expression (although, of course, not on inapplicable First Amendment grounds)?
Not long: CEO Steve Huffman expanded the ban on August 5th. It’s impossible to see how Huffman could have done otherwise than ban /r/Coontown and subreddits of similar ilk, and expect Reddit to be a welcome destination for readers or corporations.
However well-intentioned Reddit’s July 16th desire to balance speech and decency, Reddit was never going to be able to balance the two without looking like (a less candid version of) Stormfront. Reddit a large concern needing and expecting a wide readership; concealing vile content was never going to satisfy expectations against racist trolls, etc.
I cannot think of a circumstance under which I would have advised Reddit to keep but conceal subreddits like /r/Coontown. A client is owed more than a mere assessment of what may be done; they’re owed a practical assessment as well as a black-letter one.
Steve Huffman made the right decision to discard these subreddits entirely.
Next: Answering an Objection to the Language of Reddit’s Expanded Ban.