Why Reddit had to compromise on revenge porn

This a battle which no one expected Reddit to lead.

Reddit, formerly the home of creepshots and jailbait, isn’t used to being ahead of the curve on progressive sexual harassment policies. In last week’s issue of the Kernel, Ryan Broderick called Reddit “the last unapologetic mainstream website that lets its male users completely dictate its culture.” This week, however, Reddit announced their official ban on “revenge porn,” or explicit images of someone posted online without their consent. Nonconsensual porn has become a major focus of both site administrators and lawmakers in the last year, and Reddit’s new policy puts the site streets ahead of even more mainstream hosts like Facebook and Twitter.

The new policy creates an avenue for someone depicted in an explicit picture posted on Reddit to contact the site, prove their identity, and have it removed. “Last year, we missed a chance to be a leader in social media when it comes to protecting your privacy,” Reddit administrators wrote in a site-wide post about the changes. The statement subtly references the site’s involvement in the distribution of thousands of stolen explicit images of celebrities, dubbed Celebgate.

While the move puts Reddit in front of many of its competitors on the issue of nonconsensual porn, not everyone is so proud. Reddit’s userbase met the policy with concerns over the vague language of the announcement, feeling it could be a slippery road in to censorship. Advocates for victims of revenge porn felt it unfairly put the burden of proof on victims, not on perpetrators. Both parties are fundamentally misunderstanding the high-wire Reddit must walk to make this policy work, and even in the face of such an ugly crime, sometimes compromise is necessary.

The ban on nonconsensual porn is another serious attempt by Reddit, Inc. to gain legitimacy both as a company and as a “community of communities.” The site has seen several major funding rounds in recent years and is constantly seeking new investors and revenue streams. In a bid for philanthropism, Reddit took 10 percent of its yearly profits from last year and allowed its users to vote on charities worthy of receiving one tenth of that chunk, donating tens of thousands of dollars to organizations as varied as Doctors Without Borders and the Erowid Center.

Such a headline-friendly decision is right in line with the site’s new policy which, after all, is simply catching up with the legislative winds on revenge porn. Sixteen states have applicable legal roads for victims to have such content removed and even have the perpetrators prosecuted. Earlier this week, a bill was introduced to Congress that would constitute the first federal law banning nonconsensual porn, listing it as similar to medical records in the expectation of privacy it should carry.

Reddit’s announcement also comes on the heels of Blogger’s failed attempt to censor all pornographic content from its sites, highlighting the risks Reddit is encountering just by banning nonconsensual porn. The recent porn ban by Blogger was met with an outcry of censorship from its userbase. In reversing the decision, Google noted that the ban would effect “10+” year old accounts and would have a  “negative impact on individuals who post sexually explicit content to express their identities.”

Reddit, too, is filled with people who freely and expressly post nudes for whatever reason they see fit. One of Reddit’s most popular communities, /r/gonewild, is one of hundreds of pornographic subreddits that hosts nude images posted by the person in the photo—at least, if we take anonymous users at their word.

In lieu of offending this portion of their user base—a portion of the population so large not even Google could risk losing them—and asking users to confirm their identity before posting, Reddit had to split the baby in two by asking victims of nonconsensual porn to personally request their images be removed. This is certainly an imperfect solution: One could easily imagine the game of Whac-A-Mole victims and Reddit will have to play in order to keep such images from suffering the Streisand Effect.

But not only would a more severe enforcement flout the laissez faire attitude with which Reddit has maintained itself for years, but it would also make Reddit the sole arbiter of what is and what isn’t revenge porn. When you consider the millions of Imgur links Reddit sees everyday, it would not only consist of scanning each one for explicit content—something the site already does to fight child pornography—but also verifying the poster of said image had the expressed consent of the subject of the image. It would bring the entire site to a halt.

Instead, Reddit has chosen the same path many sites use to prevent the spread of copyrighted material and allow any content to flow until asked otherwise. It’s uncertain how victims will be asked to verify their ownership on a site that prides itself on anonymity—perhaps with similar methods used to verify identities on /r/IAmA, wherein everyone from celebrities to people with double genitalia manage to clear their bona fides. But the admittedly flawed policy makes Reddit the middleman in a dispute between revenge pornographers and victims instead of a scarier proposition for the company: being judge, jury, and executioner on a site very wary of management to begin with.

Whether other sites like Facebook and Twitter will follow suit is hard to say, but it’s a good bet. Congresswoman Speier’s bill, if passed into law, would make all websites and social networks responsible for revenge porn posted by their users, removing them from the protection of Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act. What is abundantly clear, however, is revenge porn is the next front in the war on dangerously misogynistic attitudes online, a battle which no one expected Reddit to lead.

Photo via blakespot/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.