Why the Violentacrez Story Isn't About Free Speech

Note: This post—a response to Reddit's free speech argument in the wake of Gawker's Violentacrez story—was originally published on writer John Scalzi's personal blog, and is republished here with permission. You can find the original here.

I've been watching with some interest the drama surrounding Gawker writer Adrian Chen revealing Reddit user/celeb/moderator/troll Violentacrez's real life identity (Michael Brutsch), which among other things resulted in Brutsch losing his job, presumably because Brutsch's employer was not 100% comfortable employing someone who spent his days moderating online forums with titles like "Chokeabitch" and bragged about the time he performed oral sex on his 19-year-old stepdaughter. It also resulted in Reddit globally banning links from Gawker (since rescinded, although forum moderators ("subredditors") can choose to block links within their forums - and do), and various bannings due to discussion of the drama.

Wrapped up in all of this are various chest beatings about free speech and whether someone's online anonymity is sacred, even if he is a creep, the culture of Reddit in particular and the Internet in general, and in a larger sense where the rights of one individual - say, a creepy middle-aged dude - begin to impinge on others - say, young women who don't believe that merely being in public is an invitation to be sexually degraded. This is all interesting stuff, to be sure, and naturally I have a few thoughts on these topics. In no particular order:

1. The "free speech" aspect of this is largely nonsense. Reddit is not a public utility or a public square; it's a privately owned space on the Internet. From a legal and (United States) constitutional point of view, people who post on Reddit have no "free speech" privileges; they have what speech privileges Reddit itself chooses to provide them, and to tolerate. Reddit chooses to tolerate creepiness and general obnoxiousness for reasons of its own, in other words, and not because there's a legal or constitutional reason for it.

Personally speaking, when everything is boiled down to the marrow, I think the reason Reddit tolerates the creepy forums has to do with money more than anything else. Reddit allows all those creepy subreddits because its business model is built on memberships and visits, and the dudes who visit these subreddits are almost certainly enthusiastic members and visitors. This is a perfectly valid reason, in the sense of "valid" meaning "allowing people to be creepy isn't inherently illegal, and we make money because of it, so we'll let it happen." But while it makes sense that the folks at Reddit are either actively or passively allowing "we're making money allowing creeps to get their creep on" to be muddled with "we're standing up for the principles of free speech," it doesn't mean anyone else needs be confused by this.

If someone bleats to you about any of this being a "free speech" issue, you can safely mark them as either ignorant or pernicious - probably ignorant, as the understanding of what "free speech" means in a constitutional sense here in the US is, shall we say, highly constrained in the general population. Additionally and independently, the sort of person who who says "free speech" when they mean "I like doing creepy things to other people without their consent and you can't stop me so fuck you ha ha ha ha" is pretty clearly a mouth-breathing asshole who in the larger moral landscape deserves a bat across the bridge of the nose and probably knows it. Which is why - unsurprisingly - so many of them choose to be anonymous and/or use pseudonyms on Reddit while they get their creep on.

On the subject of anonymity:

2. Anonymity/pseudonymity is not inherently evil or wrong. Astute observers will note that on this very site I allow both anonymous and pseudonymous postings, because sometimes you want to say something you wouldn't normally say with your name attached and/or because you have personal/business reasons to want not to have a trail of comments lead back to you. Perfectly reasonable and perfectly acceptable, and as I moderate this site pretty attentively, anyone who decides to use the cloak of anonymity to be an assbag will get their words malleted into oblivion in any event.

It's not anonymity or pseudonymity that's the issue. The issue is people being assholes while anonymous because they don't believe it's ever going to get back to them. This is a separate issue from anonymity/pseudonymity. Someone who is anonymous shouldn't be assumed to be an assbag, any more than someone who uses their real name should be assumed to be a kind and decent human being. In both cases, it's what they say that should be the guide.

However:

3. If at this point in Internet history you think you're really anonymous/ pseudonymous on the Internet, or that you have a right to anonymity/ pseudonymity on the Internet, you're kind of stupid. Yes, stupid, and there's no other way to put it. I remember back in 1998 and people with pseudonymous online diaries freaking out because they ranted about a family member or boss online, and then that person found out, and as a result the diarist was fired and/or had very awkward Thanksgivings for several years. And you know what? Even back in 1998, when the Web was still reasonably new, while one could be sympathetic, in the back of the head there was always well, what did you expect? It's not that hard to find things out. Something will give you away sooner or later. Here in 2012, if you're going to make an argument to me that anonymity truly exists on the Web, I'm going to want you to follow up with an explanation of how the Easter Bunny is riding unicorns on Mars with Kurt Cobain.

I find it difficult to believe that Redditors don't understand that anonymity online is merely a facade; indeed it's probably one of the reasons that revealing the identity of pseudonymous Redditors is looked on as such a huge betrayal. That said, anyone who goes to Reddit and truly believes that a site-standard ethos of "don't reveal our members' identities" fully protects them from being revealed or allows them to revel in obnoxious and/or creepy behavior without fear of discovery, they're kind of dumb. I won't say that they deserve what they get - maybe they do, maybe they don't - but I will say they shouldn't be terribly surprised.

Now, you might argue that someone has a right to pseudonymity or anonymity online, and depending on your argument, I might even agree with you (hint: such an argument doesn't involve posting sexualized pictures of minors or the unconsenting). But I would also agree with you that it would be cool if the Mars rover beamed back a picture of Kurt and Peter Cottontail jamming on "Pennyroyal Tea" while their unicorns kept the time on tambourine. Back here in the real world, you should get used to the idea neither is happening soon.

Speaking of the real world:

4. Reddit is not the Internet, the Internet is not Reddit, and in neither place is one obliged to privilege anonymity/pseudonymity. It seems like a lot of the angst emanating from Reddit regarding this event is based on a presumed community standard of not outing anonymous or pseudonymous Reddit users. However, leaving aside the fact that this "community standard" is found neither in the Rules of Reddit nor its "Reddiquette" document (Update: Redditors have pointed out that I missed places where this was noted, which is a fair call; I was looking for statements relating specifically to anonymity/pseudonymity and focused on those words), just because something is a community standard does not mean one is obliged to follow it in all ways at all times, and if the "community standard" is doing real harm or is being used as a shield to allow people to act badly without consequence, then it's a reasonable question of whether this "standard" is to be allowed to stand unchallenged.

In any event, an argument that those outside the community are bound to its standards is a tough one to make outside of that community. Am I, John Scalzi, enjoined by Reddit "community standards" on my own site? Not in the least, and if anyone suggested I was, I would point and laugh at them. Am I when I am on Reddit, signed into my Reddit account ("Scalzi," which, I would note, is not particularly anonymous/ pseudonymous)? Well, I'm enjoined by the actual rules (seeing as I have no right to free speech as understood by the US Constitution while I am there), and generally would try to abide by established local practices. But there are rules and then there are guidelines, and I don't need to believe that the latter has the force of the former.

In the case of Adrian Chen, the Gawker writer who revealed Violentacrez's real-life identity, I think he's perfectly justified in doing so. Whether certain denizens of Reddit like it or not, Chen was practicing journalism, and writing a story of a figure of note (and of notoriety) on one of the largest and most influential sites on the Internet. They may believe that Mr. Brutsch should have an expectation not to have his real life identity revealed on Gawker, but the question to ask here is "why?" Why should that be the expectation? How does an expectation of pseudonymity on a Web site logically extend to an expectation of pseudonymity in the real world? How does one who beats his chest for the right of free speech on a Web site (where in fact he has no free speech rights) and to have that right to free speech include the posting of pictures of women who did not consent to have their pictures taken or posted then turn around and criticize Gawker for pursuing an actually and legitimately constitutionally protected exercise of the free press, involving a man who has no legal or ethical presumption of anonymity or pseudonymity in the real world? How do you square one with the other? Well, you can't, or at least I can't; I have no doubt some of the folks at Reddit can guide that particular camel through the eye of the needle.

But they would be wrong. Mr. Brutsch's actions are newsworthy, and it's neither libel nor defamation for Gawker to correctly attribute his actions to him, whether or not he ever expected them to be attached to his real life identity. If they don't think so, I heartily encourage them to take up a collection for Mr. Brutsch so he can sue Gawker. I know what the result would be, but I think the path to getting there might be instructive to some Redditors.

Or maybe (and hopefully) they already know they don't have a legal or ethical leg to stand on, which is why they eventually fall back on well, this just isn't done and then ban Gawker links on Reddit. Which, of course, is their right. That is, so long as the people actually running Reddit believe it is.

Addendum: This piece should not be read as a blanket condemnation of Reddit, which I visit on a regular basis and on which I have done interviews. Nor should it been as a blanket condemnation of everyone who identifies as a "Redditor," because, come on, that's silly. Reddit is generally fine but has squicky corners to it and some squicky people. Kind of like the Internet in general.

John Scalzi is the author of Redshirts and Old Man's War, the latter of which is being currently featured in the Humble eBook Bundle. His blog, Whatever, has been online since 1998.