Reddit, Free Speech and “Child Porn”

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the site, Reddit. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s currently my favourite site on the Internet.

One of the reasons I like the site so much (and one of the site’s greatest advantages) is the fact that it literally has an unlimited number of “sub-Reddits”.  These are sub-communities that anyone can start on any topic from atheism to Saskatchewan to the TV show Breaking Bad (just to name three I check regularly.)  That doesn’t even do justice to the full scope of Reddit’s sub-sites – if there’s a topic you’re interested in, I bet there’s a related sub-reddit.

I even created my own sub-Reddit the other week just to see what the moderator interface was like.  (I made a sub-Reddit called “LibraryLandProblems“, modeled on Reddit’s very popular “FirstWorldProblems” sub-reddit.)

As enjoyable and popular as Reddit is, one of the disadvantages challenges of a system which allows anyone to create a sub-Reddit on any topic is that inevitably there will be some sub-Reddits with subject matter which is disturbing or troubling for all manner of reasons.

Recently, Reddit hit the news on CNN’s “360 with Anderson Cooper” program for one of these particularly challenging sub-Reddits – one called /r/jailbait (link safe to click).  This was a sub-Reddit that apparently contained pictures of teenage women, likely between the ages of 15-18, who were scantily clad although not naked or engaged in any sexual activity.  Instead, it was bikini shots, pictures of teen girls in their underwear and the like.

Now, there are numerous sub-Reddits that feature NSFW (not safe for work) images including one called (quite obviously) /r/nsfw.  Another called /r/gonewild features nude photos submitted by Reddit members which can occasionally move beyond titillation to be quite empowering.

Most of the NSFW sub-Reddits are labeled as such due to nudity but there are also others which also have other types of provocative content – on subjects from right-wing extremism to illegal substances to blatant racism and worse.

Originally, after the Anderson Cooper piece aired, the Reddit administrators came out with a strong pro-free speech argument:

Reddit.com general manager Eric Martin responded in a written statement: “We’re a free speech site and the cost of that is there’s stuff that’s offensive on there. Once we start taking down some things we find offensive, then we’re no longer a free speech site and no longer a platform for everyone.”

But even as debate raged back and forth across the wider Reddit community on how to proceed, /r/jailbait was shut down a few days ago (sparking new debates).  This coincided with a new post to the official Reddit blog on “How Reddit works“.   (This also wasn’t the first time /r/jailbait caught the attention of the wider Reddit community.  The knowledge that a Google search for “Reddit” brought up /r/jailbait as one of the site’s main sub-pages caused considerable embarrassment for many.)

The shutdown provoked an outraged response from user, ViolentAcrez, who had created and moderated /r/jailbait as well as another infamous sub-reddit, /r/PicsOfDeadKids.  In his response, ViolentAcrez said that jailbait-esque content was scattered throughout various sub-Reddits and the site administrators were just caving to media pressure.

There are all sorts of inter-connected ideas around this issue:

  • the role of corporate media in policing the internet (Reddit is now owned by Conde Nast, publisher of “The New Yorker”, “GQ”, and “Teen Vogue” magazines among others – and I probably don’t have to point out that these magazines often also feature pictures of scantily-clad underage females.  In fact, some would argue that magazines like Teen Vogue promote the mentality that leads to jailbait-style poses and photographs being so prevalent among teen girls in the first place!)
  • the impossibility of controlling information online (researching this post, I saw that there were at least two alternate “jailbait” sites that have already sprung up to replace the original.)
  • the role of journalists in defending free speech versus their role in creating and/or sensationalizing news (one commentator on the Cooper segment kept saying /r/jailbait featured “child porn” and should be shut down while the other admitted the sub-Reddit “probably wasn’t illegal”.  Anderson Cooper didn’t try to answer the question definitively either way but instead, just seemed to hone in on the alleged “seediness” of the site.)
  • the role of language in perception as well as the arbitrary lines we draw as a society in making our laws.  If the sub-Reddit had been called /r/cutegirls, it may not have drawn the same negative attention as /r/jaibait which deliberately evokes our society’s laws about how much changes (in a legal context) from when a young woman is 17 and 364 days and when she turns 18 (even if very little changes physically).  (Along the same lines, why is the speed limit 100kph and not 105?  110?  90?  You have to draw a line somewhere but it’ll always be arbitrary.)
  • the role of copyright in the Internet age (more than the legality of what the /r/jailbait images depict, a more relevant question might be how are these photos obtained in the first place – from teenager’s Facebook profiles and elsewhere – and is this a copyright violation or even theft?  IANAL but likely yes in both cases.)
  • possible double-standards relating to male versus female sexuality
  • of course that ever-present question of the changing nature of privacy in the Internet age also rears its head as does the issue of informed consent.  Does every teenager know the risks of posting photos of herself (or himself) in a swimsuit or pyjamas?  Do some teens not even consider this a “risk” and that’s more of a concern for mom and dad (and Anderson Cooper?)
  • MetaFilter has some discussion on the subject too – though I’ll be honest and say that MetaFilter sometimes has a smugness, especially towards Reddit, and this comes through loud and clear in this particular discussion.

Ultimately, if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ll probably know which side of the fence I come down on whenever a topic like this arises no matter how hard it is to defend the much more offensive side of the ledger.  That’s why I find Reddit’s decision to remove the sub-reddit, whether I agree with it or not (I don’t) so disappointing.

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