In Policy Shift, Reddit Bans Child Pornography

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Reddit's logo.

It probably sounds like a no-brainer but up until today, Reddit, a popular user-generated content aggregation website, did not expressly ban or prohibit its users from posting "suggestive or sexual content featuring minors." Also known as child pornography.

Reddit is defined in part by its hands-off, pro-free-speech, let-the-users-decide, and self-police approach, but perhaps bowing to corporate and media pressure and maybe the influence of other Internet voices, it announced new rules.

Reddit's administrators posted these rules a few hours ago under the headline, "A necessary change in policy":

At reddit we care deeply about not imposing ours or anyone elses’ opinions on how people use the reddit platform. We are adamant about not limiting the ability to use the reddit platform even when we do not ourselves agree with or condone a specific use. We have very few rules here on reddit; no spamming, no cheating, no personal info, nothing illegal, and no interfering the site's functions. Today we are adding another rule: No suggestive or sexual content featuring minors.

(Emphasis theirs.) After addressing its previous policy and the difficulty of dealing with questionable content on a case-by-case basis (and involving the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children where it has deemed appropriate), the administrators wrote:

We understand that this might make some of you worried about the slippery slope from banning one specific type of content to banning other types of content. We're concerned about that too, and do not make this policy change lightly or without careful deliberation. We will tirelessly defend the right to freely share information on reddit in any way we can, even if it is offensive or discusses something that may be illegal. However, child pornography is a toxic and unique case for Internet communities, and we're protecting reddit's ability to operate by removing this threat. We remain committed to protecting reddit as an open platform.

"Why now?" is a much more difficult question than "why?," but the immediate heat points to forum members of website Something Awful. One user posted about Reddit's policy, and his or her disdain and disgust for it. The crux of the argument stems from this mission statement: "This thread is about Reddit actively trading child porn. Do not come in here to defend /jailbait or any other objectivist talking points."

The remainder of that thread includes a list of Reddit subsections that the Something Awful user objects to, including truejailbait and preteen_girls. Collectively, the data and suggestions (e.g. to contact local media outlets) comprise the "Redditbomb," intended to force Reddit's just-announced position shift.

Lest you think that Reddit is merely part of a lowly trafficked underbelly of the Internet, according to one metric, Alexa.com, Reddit ranks higher in U.S. traffic than the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times, among others.

So as for the why now?, consider that on September 29, 2011, CNN's Anderson Cooper reported unflatteringly (how else?) on Reddit and child pornography.

Included in Cooper's report was the statement from Reddit general manager Erik Martin: "We’re a free speech site and the cost of that is there’s offensive stuff 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. We’re exerting editorial control and that’s not what we are."

At the time of Cooper's story, Reddit had recently split from publishing giant Condé Nast, although Reddit remained wholly-owned by Nast's parent Advanced Publishing. The report pointed specifically to Reddit subsection "Jailbait," which was exactly what it sounds like. Less than two weeks later, Reddit shut down the section.

In response to Cooper, one of Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian's defenses of Reddit's content, specifically the morally questionable kind, is that Reddit "doesn't host" the material, that the website is merely a repository of links.

If true, and whether that's right, wrong, or defensible, it obviously became a liability for Reddit or a standard that weighed against everything else, wasn't worth maintaining.

The administrators included this telling line in their statement. "We have changed our policy because interpreting the vague and debated legal guidelines on a case by case basis has become a massive distraction and risks reddit being pulled in to legal quagmire."