Ellen Pao has resigned as CEO of Reddit following the worst set of user and moderator revolts in the site’s history, but Redditors who hoped her departure marked the end of threats to free speech on the site are likely to be disappointed.
In fact, judging by the remarks of her successor, Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman, the threat level should probably be turned up a notch.
Pao confined her censorship only to communities deemed to be engaged in harassment, i.e directly targeting other internet users for abuse. Her announcement was worded in a language reminiscent of college safe spaces, and was followed by a comment to NPR that Reddit was not a “completely free speech zone”.
It was at this point that the meme of “Chairman Pao,” intended to portray the CEO as authoritarian, began to gather steam.
But Huffman wants to go far beyond Pao’s policy, promising the site’s users that he will establish a Reddit-wide content policy aimed at tackling “reprehensible” communities on the site. If the subjective measure of “reprehensible” is met, a community and all its content can be banned.
In a post yesterday evening, Huffman said:
There has been a lot of discussion lately —on reddit, in the news, and here internally— about reddit’s policy on the more offensive and obscene content on our platform. Our top priority at reddit is to develop a comprehensive Content Policy and the tools to enforce it.
The overwhelming majority of content on reddit comes from wonderful, creative, funny, smart, and silly communities. That is what makes reddit great. There is also a dark side, communities whose purpose is reprehensible, and we don’t have any obligation to support them. And we also believe that some communities currently on the platform should not be here at all.
Neither Alexis nor I created reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen: These are very complicated issues, and we are putting a lot of thought into it. It’s something we’ve been thinking about for quite some time. We haven’t had the tools to enforce policy, but now we’re building those tools and reevaluating our policy.
Huffman’s insistence that he and co-founder Alexis Ohanian did not create Reddit as a “bastion of free speech” is already causing him some embarrassment. The top-voted comment underneath his announcement links to a Forbes article from 2012 in which Ohanian says Reddit is a “bastion of free speech on the World Wide Web”.
Huffman is planning a Q&A with his users later today — but judging by the response to his original post, he’s going to get some tough questions about where Reddit really stands on free speech.
A big part of Huffman’s problem comes in the form of ex-CEO Yishan Wong. A friend of Ellen Pao who personally pushed for her to succeed him when he stepped down last year, Wong has been releasing a string of tell-all posts over the past few days about the motivations of the Reddit board.
According to Wong, not only was Pao framed for the sacking of Victoria Taylor, but she was also fighting off pressure from the Reddit board to enforce tighter content restrictions across Reddit — the same content restrictions now being considered by Huffman.
“On at least two separate occasions, the board pressed [Pao] to outright ban ALL the hate subreddits in a sweeping purge” Wong wrote. “She resisted, knowing the community, claiming it would be a shitshow… Ellen was more or less inclined to continue upholding my free-speech policies.”
Furthermore, Wong alleged that Huffman was far more willing to ban controversial Reddit communities than either himself or Pao. According to Wong, Huffman once told him that when he was CEO, he would ban offensive content “right away.”
There’s a possibility that Wong is just causing trouble — he describes himself as a personal friend of Ellen Pao, and he is clearly angry with the way she has been treated by the Reddit board of directors. He recently described the failure to explain Pao was not responsible for the sacking of Victoria Taylor — the incident that sparked the second ‘Reddit Revolt’ — as an “incredibly shitty thing to do.”
But enterprising Reddit users have unearthed evidence that points to the truth of Wong’s assessment of Steve Huffman. Posts from 2008 and 2010 show him banning users that engage in “hate speech” on the spot and editing offensive usernames.
Wong’s comments have now put Huffman in a difficult situation. If he presses ahead with his content policy and bans “reprehensible communities” on Reddit, he will be confirming Wong’s prediction that Pao’s departure heralds even more censorship on the site, and is likely to face another user revolt. Competitors like Voat.co would be wise to prepare their server capacity.
Follow Allum Bokhari @LibertarianBlue on Twitter.