Reddit CEO Speaks Out On Violentacrez In Leaked Memo: 'We Stand for Free Speech'

Reddit has been rocked by our expose of its most powerful creep, Texas programmer Michael Brutsch aka Violentacrez. Brutsch has been defending himself on Reddit, and is even going to be interviewed by CNN. But Reddit's staff has been surprisingly quiet. Their silence has raised some eyebrows among Reddit's community of volunteer moderators, who are feeling under fire and reeling from the loss of an influential member. This evening, Reddit CEO Yishan Wong finally weighed in on the Violentacrez scandal, saying that Reddit will not ban 'distasteful' content, while condemning Reddit moderators' widespread ban on Gawker links.

Wong, a former Facebook engineer who joined Reddit in March as CEO, posted his thoughts on Modtalk, a private subreddit for moderators and administrators, and we've obtained a copy of the post.

"There sure has been a lot of trouble lately for Reddit, and I'd like to talk about that before I nip off for a spot of tea," he writes. Wong never addresses Violentacrez by name, but begins by reiterating Reddit's commitment to free speech and to allowing the sorts of offensive content Violentacrez traded in.

We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it. Not because that's the law in the United States - because as many people have pointed out, privately-owned forums are under no obligation to uphold it - but because we believe in that ideal independently, and that's what we want to promote on our platform. We are clarifying that now because in the past it wasn't clear, and (to be honest) in the past we were not completely independent and there were other pressures acting on reddit. Now it's just reddit, and we serve the community, we serve the ideals of free speech, and we hope to ultimately be a universal platform for human discourse (cat pictures are a form of discourse).

Judging from his memo, the key issue of the scandal for Wong is not Violentacrez's actions but the widespread censorship of Gawker links that occurred in retaliation for our publishing the article. Moderators were enraged by Violentacrez's "doxxing" (hacker slang for outing) and decided to censor Gawker links in protest. Currently more than 70 subreddits have censored Gawker links, including the popular Politics and TodayILearned subreddits.

This is obviously at odds with Reddit's free speech mission. And Wong writes that the ban is wrongheaded:

Let's be honest, this ban on links from the gawker network is not making reddit look so good.
While the ban was originally being discussed by mods, we were discussing it internally too. We even briefly considered the consequences of a site-level ban on the entire gawker network, and realized three things about it:

1. It would ultimately be ineffective at stopping off-site doxxing. People who want to go after someone off-site would still do it. They have plenty of other megaphones besides reddit.

2. It would definitely raise the profile of the issue with the general public, and result in headlines like "gawker exposes creepster; reddit engages in personal vendetta to defend pedophile." This would hardly help us explain the problem of irresponsible release of personal information to the general public.

3. Practically speaking, it wouldn't really deter or hurt gawker anyways. This is in contrast to domain banning spammers, where it is not just punitive, it literally stops the spam.

Reddit administrators never banned Gawker. However, they did institute a site-wide ban on the link to our Violentacrez story for about a day, supposedly because of the anti-doxxing policy. Wong now admits that was a mistake: "In our case as admins, we chose to recognize that opponents have the right to criticize us, to expose us, to tell a story about us - even if we don't like that story or we feel it's wrong. So we reversed the site-level ban on Chen's gawker piece."

And of course, this being Reddit, Wong gives a TL;DR:

TL;DR: We stand for freedom of speech. We will uphold existing rules against posting dox on reddit. But the reality is those rules end at our platform, and we will respect journalism as a form of speech that we don't ban. We believe further change can come only from example-setting.

The memo is in keeping with the hands-off approach Reddit administrators say they take with content and users on the site. What Wong doesn't address is the close relationship Violentacrez had with administrators and staff while he was spreading his Jailbait pics and virulent racism. He was often in contact with administrators, who gave him a special "pimp hat" badge to thank him for helping oversee the site's massive NSFW side. Though it's not in the memo, we imagine the pimp hat badge has been discontinued.

Here's the full memo (and see a screenshot of Wong's original post here):

Hi everyone. There sure has been a lot of trouble lately for reddit, and I'd like to talk a bit about that before I nip off for a spot of tea. I know the admins have been silent during a lot of the recent crisis, and we have been putting together a complex decision. We'd like to chart the right course for reddit's future, and we are taking this seriously.

We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it. Not because that's the law in the United States - because as many people have pointed out, privately-owned forums are under no obligation to uphold it - but because we believe in that ideal independently, and that's what we want to promote on our platform. We are clarifying that now because in the past it wasn't clear, and (to be honest) in the past we were not completely independent and there were other pressures acting on reddit. Now it's just reddit, and we serve the community, we serve the ideals of free speech, and we hope to ultimately be a universal platform for human discourse (cat pictures are a form of discourse).

We also know that this will be a difficult course to take. We know that some will not agree with us. And we even know that we may not succeed, or that we may even be forced to compromise. But, we also think that if someday, in the far future, we do become a universal platform for human discourse, it would not do if in our youth, we decided to censor things simply because they were distasteful.

Our rules today include the following two exceptions:

1. We will ban illegal content, and in addition sexualized pictures of minors, immediately upon any reports to us. We gave our rationale for that back when that issue was resolved, and we will maintain that policy for the same reasons.
2. We will ban the posting of personal information (doxxing), because it incites violence and harassment against specific individuals.

The current events have made it clear that the implementation of #2 requires some development. Those of us who've been around are familiar with the reasons behind that rule, the destructive witchhunts in reddit's past against both users and mods - even people who had no idea what ‘reddit' was - prompted by suspicion and ire, and often ending with undeserved harassment, death threats, job loss, or worse for the affected individual. Even reddit's favorite journalist Adrian Chen once wrote an article decrying the practice and mob mentality behind it (see: http://gawker.com/5751581/misguided-internet-vigilantes-attack-college-students-cancer-fundraiser).

But our ability to enforce policy ends at the edges of our platform. And one of the key functions of our platform is the sharing of content on the internet. I'm sure you see the problem.

So we must draw a line, and we've chosen to do the following:
1. We will ban doxxing posted to reddit.
2. We will ban links to pages elsewhere which are trivially or primarily intended for the purposes of doxxing (e.g. wikis or blogs primarily including dox).

But, we will not ban things which are legitimate investigative journalism.
Free speech is expressed most powerful through the press, and many times throughout history a bad actor has been exposed by an enterprising (even muckraking) journalist, and it has been to the benefit of society. We include in this definition blog posts that a reasonable person would consider a piece of journalism that happens to include a link to #2 above.

We recognize that there will be a continuum between trivially obvious doxxing sites (e.g. a wiki page entitled "Collect the dox here!") and "true" journalism, but the world requires judgment calls so the area in between will be where we focus our efforts in adjudication. I do believe that reddit is in some ways like a city-state, and we need to move towards transparent and codified systems of enforcement. We hope to make these calls together in a helpful, precedent-setting manner.

We know that some of you may not agree with where we've drawn the line. But this is our best judgment given the competing principles at stake. We want to do it openly and honestly, even if it is imperfect, and we do it because reddit needs a decision in order to move forward. We ask that you support us.

There is another thing.

Let's be honest, this ban on links from the gawker network is not making reddit look so good.

While the ban was originally being discussed by mods, we were discussing it internally too. We even briefly considered the consequences of a site-level ban on the entire gawker network, and realized three things about it:
1. It would ultimately be ineffective at stopping off-site doxxing. People who want to go after someone off-site would still do it. They have plenty of other megaphones besides reddit.
2. It would definitely raise the profile of the issue with the general public, and result in headlines like "gawker exposes creepster; reddit engages in personal vendetta to defend pedophile." This would hardly help us explain the problem of irresponsible release of personal information to the general public.
3. Practically speaking, it wouldn't really deter or hurt gawker anyways. This is in contrast to domain banning spammers, where it is not just punitive, it literally stops the spam.

We do believe that doxxing is a form of violence, rather unique to the internet. Even innocent individuals can be accidentally targeted due to mistaken identities - a key difference between online mobs versus with journalists who have a system of professional accountability. And we believe that while we can prohibit it on our platform, we can only affect the opinion of others outside of reddit via moral suasion and setting an example. From the time when reddit first banned doxxing on its platform, I feel that there has been a change in the general attitude towards doxxing on the internet. It's still widespread, but we made a clear statement that it was a bad thing, worth exercising restraint over.

TL;DR: We stand for freedom of speech. We will uphold existing rules against posting dox on reddit. But the reality is those rules end at our platform, and we will respect journalism as a form of speech that we don't ban. We believe further change can come only from example-setting.

All of us at reddit work here because we think that reddit is a community like none other. We think it can be a powerful force to change the world for the better. There are numerous examples of how we - all together - have already begun to do this in small and large ways. And I think that part of our ability to do so lies in our ability to set an example with our actions and decisions. In our case as admins, we chose to recognize that opponents have the right to criticize us, to expose us, to tell a story about us - even if we don't like that story or we feel it's wrong. So we reversed the site-level ban on Chen's gawker piece.

The mod-implemented ban on the gawker network is still in place, and we know that some of you disagree. We seem to have a difference in opinion, and we hope you'd like to share with us why.