Reddit, CloudFlare and the Hill of Free Speech

Reddit LogoLast month, Reddit updated its policies to address the issue of harassment, saying that, based upon the results of a 15,000-user survey, that user harassment made many uncomfortable in participating in the community and was the number one reason people didn’t recommend the site to friends and family.

Initially the policy wasn’t extremely controversial. However, last week, under the new policy, Reddit banned a series of subreddits (communities) including one forum entitled FatPeopleHate, which focused on posting hateful and shaming things about overweight people.

The move resulted in a user revolt with many calling for the resignation of Reddit CEO Ellen Pao and the publication of countless fat-shaming posts and creation of new subreddits for the same purpose. Some even left the site, heading to a competitor that has “less restrictive” policies.

This all came just weeks after Imgur, an image hosting site closely related to Reddit, faced a revolt of its own after it began to delete offensive comments.

However, Reddit and Imgur weren’t the only places that faced a trial over its content policies. CloudFlare, a service that promises to improve website speed, security and optimization, lost a court battle involving a copycat site claiming to be Grooveshark.

When the record labels received an injunction barring U.S. companies from providing services to the sites, CloudFlare protested. They claimed that they were merely an automated service and not impacted by the injunction. Further, they claimed that discontinuing CloudFlare services would not shutter the site, but merely route traffic back to the main server.

The judge, however, disagreed, noting the many benefits CloudFlare provided the site and the site had an account with CloudFlare. The judge ordered CloudFlare to disconnect the site and they did so, which brought the site offline (despite CloudFlare’s earlier claims).

On the surface, these two stories don’t seem to have a great deal in common, but they center around the same issue: The concept of free speech on the Internet and the boundaries thereof.

Free Speech Isn’t Free

Legally speaking, free speech in the U.S. is a guarantee that you are free from the government abridging your freedom of speech. While there are many exceptions to this, the important thing to remember is that you are protected from the government, not from private individuals and organizations.

Reddit, Imgur, CLoudFlare and other companies are perfectly free to set their own rules about what they will and will not allow on their servers. If these sites wish to ban pornography, foul language, hate speech or anything else, they are free to do so. In fact, they’re free to ban outrageous or ridiculous things such as criticisms of their companies or their sponsors.

It is their site and their property.They get to create the rules.

That being said, many sites and communities on the Internet make freedom of speech a priority. Reddit itself has “Allow freedom of expression” and “Be stewards, not dictators” on its page of core values.

But while free speech sounds like a great value to build a company and a community on, it rarely actually is. As many communities find out when they try to take a “hands off” approach to administrating (meaning only removing content that’s outright illegal) there’s a lot of content out there that is technically legal, but is terrible for the community and/or the company.

Between content that drives away legitimate users, makes advertisers uncomfortable or simply causes public backlash, there is a lot that users can do that’s within the bounds of a law that can be poison to an online community.

Reddit has learned this well. Between “The Fappening” (the mass leak of celebrity nude photos), which brought down a high amount of legal complaints, and the recent harassment banning, which were brought about by surveys showing that such harassment was driving users away, there comes a time and a place where free speech have to give way if the site is to survive.

The problem is simple. When you build a community on “free speech” and try to hide behind the law to administrate the site as little as possible, the people you attract, invariably, are people who are on on the fringes and and have been disenfranchised from other communities. Whether trolls, spammers or something else, the first people attracted to “free speech” communities aren’t free speech advocates who hate rules on principle, but rather, people who want to break the rules other communities use to protect themselves.

This content is poison to a company and, inevitably, comes to mark them.

Dying on the Hill of Free Speech

Cloudflare LogoCloudFlare is an interesting case study. The company serves some 2 million sites including some of the largest on the Web. These sites include Zendesk, eHarmony and, yes, Reddit itself. However, much of the media attention on the site has been focused on the less desirable customers its had, including the hacking group Lulzsec and, most recently, The Pirate Bay (which it still currently serves).

Not only has CloudFlare provided services to these organizations knowing they engage in illegal behavior, but they have fought to protect them, as they did in the Grooveshark case above.

According to CloudFlare, they are just a passthrough service and, though they tout all the ways they help websites, including The Pirate Bay, they don’t feel it is their responsibility to stop serving these sites. Instead, they simply forward copyright and most other abuse complaints on to the original hosts of the site, which may or may not take action. This is despite the fact they are perfectly able to step in and either temporarily shutter or at least cease aiding/protecting these sites, just as they do with malware sites.

These defenses have come at a high cost, including to the service’s legitimate customers. For example, CloudFlare threatened to remove one domain, a Pirate Bay proxy, when it was causing the network’s IP addresses to be blocked by the UK ISP Sky. In short, even CloudFlare moved to block sites that were harming its network.

In short, though CloudFlare currently serves The Pirate Bay, it was prepared to boot off a proxy site, simply because that site was hurting its network. Free speech on CloudFlare stops where the company’s interest begins.

And that’s the issue with this. Every online community has to put restrictions on “free speech” and those restrictions often have to evolve. To do otherwise puts the community at risk of the actions of a small minority of users harming the rest of the community. Whether it’s harassment, spam or something else.

There’s an old expression that goes “Not a hill I want to die on” or, in question format, “Is this a hill you want to die on?” It basically means “Is this the battle you’re willing to lose everything over?”

Communities like Reddit talk a great deal about freedom of speech but they know that absolute freedom of speech (within the boundaries of the law) will probably kill their community. This is why communities like Reddit have policies about what can and can not be said on the service and why companies like CloudFlare will boot sites that harm their network in any way. Free speech is not a hill that they want to die on.

And that seems to be true across the Web. Even the supposedly lawless 4Chan has a slew of rules, 11 of which apply to the /b/ board, which is known (until somewhat recently) as a place for being a free speech haven. But even that forum saw a wave of bans in September last year after Chan administrators were forced to ban discussions about Gamergate over issues of “doxxing”, meaning posting private information on public forums, and “raiding”, organizing mass attacks on other sites or forums.

If 4Chan isn’t ready to die on the hill of free speech, then pretty much no one is.

The Bigger Picture

The problem with sites like Reddit and CloudFlare isn’t that they have rules limiting free speech on their servers, it’s that the rules are completely fluid.

These sites and services trumpet free speech to appeal to users but back away from those values once they are seriously challenged. Reddit didn’t deal with revenge porn until it was inundated with bad press and legal paperwork. Reddit didn’t stop harassment until they had a survey showing it hurt growth. CloudFlare doesn’t deal with rampant piracy until it results in part of their network being blocked.

In short, free speech isn’t a hill they want to die on and, as a result, they retreat from it when attacked too hard. That’s perfectly understandable, they have the right to set their rules as they wish, but it makes them appear inconsistent and the polices they set are not thought out and planned for the better of the community and the Web, but rather, are set by how forces outside the community respond to what goes on inside.

This basically removes control of the site and puts it in the hands of the news media, law enforcement, lawyers and anyone else who might take issue with what is going on.

That doesn’t make for better community policy, it just takes policy enforcement out of the hands of the administrators and leaves the site to the whims of the world around it. It also sets the stage for repeated controversies and uprisings like we’ve seen on Reddit in recent weeks.

If these sites wanted to be truly independent, they would do better to craft reasonable policies that they can defend and are willing to stand by, even when things get somewhat difficult.

Bottom Line

To be clear, Reddit, Imgur and CloudFlare are all doing well for themselves. They’re growing sites and growing companies.

However, on the issue of free speech, they are not bastions of it and never really could be. Though free speech sounds like a great ideal for a community, a company that truly lives and dies by it probably will die by it. It’s unfortunate, but those who crave truly free speech are those who feel constrained by the rules they face elsewhere, no matter how reasonable those rules are.

Sites can prevent the constant retreat on free speech and cries of hypocrisy just by having well thought out and reasonable rules from day one. Planting a flag on the hill of free speech sound great and may get you a lot of positive attention, but if you’re not also ready to die on that hill, it eventually will come back to bite you when you inevitably retreat.

Users, on the other hand, need to stop expecting or asking companies to be bastions of free speech on their sites and services. While unreasonable restrictions can and should be protested (mostly by just going elsewhere), we should understand that companies and people not only have the right, but the obligation, to set reasonable rules about what can be posted on their sites.

In short, Reddit’s restriction of “free speech” is not the issue, rather, it’s the way it’s going about it. Honest, fair and stable policies are better than constantly shifting ones, but you can’t have stable policies when the ones you choose are not ones you can ever truly stand behind.

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