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July 15, 2015

Reddit jeers as chief exec Huffman abandons free speech

Leadership is preparing tools to tackle ‘dark side’ of content aggregator.

By Jimmy Nicholls

The co-founder and interim chief executive of Reddit abandoned the site’s historic commitment to freedom of speech on Tuesday, prompting protests from the site’s boisterous community.

Steve Huffman, who only took charge in the last week, said the firm was preparing new tools to control the "dark side" of the site, which he emphasised his company had no obligation to support.

"Neither Alexis [Ohanian] nor I created Reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen," he wrote in an online post.

"These are very complicated issues, and we are putting a lot of thought into it. We haven’t had the tools to enforce policy, but now we’re building those tools and re-evaluating our policy."

His remarks were quickly challenged by the site’s users, many of whom linked to interviews with Ohanian, who told Forbes in 2012 that the US’s founder fathers would admire Reddit because it was "a bastion of free speech on the World Wide Web".

The debacle is only the latest standoff between an intransigent community and what is seen as a detached and hostile staff.

Last week saw the acrimonious departure of Ellen Pao, a controversial interim chief executive whose tenure was marked by a tightening of the site’s harassment policies and the shutting down of sub-forums seen to be spreading hatred.

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Some 200,000 people signed a petition demanding Pao’s resignation, describing her as "a manipulative individual who will sue her way to the top", a reference to her failed sexual discrimination lawsuit against venture capitalist Kleiner Perkins.

Yet in a further twist Pao’s predecessor Yishan Wong argued on Reddit that Pao had resisted vigorous attempts from the firm’s board to curb the laissez-faire policing of speech on the site.

"What all the white-power racist-sexist neckbeards [socially inept men] don’t understand is that with her at the head of the company, the company would be immune to accusations of promoting sexism and racism," he wrote on Reddit.

"She is literally Silicon Valley’s #1 Feminist Hero, so any ‘SJWs’ [social justice warriors] would have a hard time attacking the company for intentionally creating a bastion of sexist/racist content."

According to Wong the free speech policy of the site was adopted as the site grew larger, with Huffman even claiming in an email that he would ban "racist, sexist and homophobic" content on sight in Reddit’s earlier days.

Many have speculated that the bid to clean the site’s image is also motivated by profit, Reddit having faced widespread scrutiny for its role in spreading the hacked photos of naked celebrities last summer, the most prominent victim of which was the actress Jennifer Lawrence.

The company reported advertising revenues of $8.3m last year, a tenth of which was donated to various charities chosen by the community, which is largely responsible for aggregating content and moderating the various sub-forums.

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