Reddit's new CEO, co-founder Steve Huffman, has laid out a prospective fresh code of conduct for Reddit... and it's not clear how much it will really help. On the Announcements subreddit, Huffman noted several kinds of content that would be banned under the new rules, which aren't yet final. Most of this was already forbidden in the current user agreement — including personal information, anything that "incites harm or violence," content that is itself illegal (instead of just discussing something illegal), and sexually suggestive pictures of minors.
There's also a clause that looks similar to what Ellen Pao introduced earlier, banning "anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people (these behaviors intimidate others into silence)." It sounds like Reddit is putting a little more emphasis on cracking down on things that could hurt other community members, but that's going to require a change in actual admin behavior, not just wording. "Inciting harm," for instance, is open to interpretation. "I think we have an intuitive sense of what this means (e.g. death threats, inciting rape), but before we release an official update to our policy we will spell this out as precisely as possible," said Huffman in response to a question.
Huffman also acknowledged that part of the problem is Reddit's overall hesitance to apply the rules that already exist, including those against incitement and harassment. "This isn't different from what we have right now, but we really need to enforce it better," he told one Redditor.
"Content that violates a common sense of decency" will become a little harder to find
In practice, it looks like Reddit will alternate between shutting down the worst subreddits and trying to quarantine them. In addition to existing warnings for NSFW content, there's a new section for "content that violates a common sense of decency," apparently a catch-all term for all the worst parts of Reddit. This will be allowed to stay up, but users will have to log in to see it, won't appear in search results, and "will generate no revenue for Reddit."
Huffman gave one example of the difference between incitement and violating common decency. "/r/rapingwomen will be banned. They are encouraging people to rape," he said, of one of Reddit's more controversial boards. But a white supremacist subreddit that doesn't actively incite violence could stay up. That's apparently the case with one of the site's most infamous racist communities. "/r/coontown will be reclassified. The content there is offensive to many, but does not violate our current rules for banning."
In his justification, Huffman spoke of letting people form communities around offensive ideas but keeping those communities off "mainstream" Reddit.
No company is perfect at addressing these hard issues. We've spent the last few days here discussing and agree that an approach like this allows us as a company to repudiate content we don't want to associate with the business, but gives individuals freedom to consume it if they choose. This is what we will try, and if the hateful users continue to spill out into mainstream Reddit, we will try more aggressive approaches. Freedom of expression is important to us, but it's more important to us that we at reddit be true to our mission.
This is going to be complicated. One user asked how Reddit would decide when a whole subreddit, not just a few bad members, would qualify for banning. Huffman said he wouldn't enforce the new policy until he'd given moderators more tools to actually manage their subreddits, something that several members of Reddit leadership have previously promised.
"The concept of free speech is important to us, but completely unfettered free speech can cause harm to others."
He also answered questions about the conflicting ways that Reddit has talked about its purpose. In a recent post, Huffman said the site wasn't created as a "bastion of free speech," but fellow co-founder Alexis Ohanian referred to it with those exact words in 2012. "The common wording is unfortunate," he said. "The concept of free speech is important to us, but completely unfettered free speech can cause harm to others and additionally silence others, which is what we'll continue to address."
Huffman stepped up last week to replace interim CEO Ellen Pao, who replaced previous CEO Yishan Wong in November of 2014. While Wong took a hands-off approach to the site, Pao instituted an unpopular anti-harassment policy and banned five subreddits for flouting it. She resigned earlier in July after a week of chaos over the firing of communications director Victoria Taylor and long-building tension between moderators and the site's administrators. The exact circumstances of Taylor's firing remain conflicted.
There's no specific date for when the rules might go into force, and they'll likely be rewritten before then. They're also only part of the solution — Reddit also needs to rebuild its relationship with moderators and hire paid employees (like Taylor) to work with them. But whether or not the policy helps Reddit, it's at least broader and more comprehensive the slapdash attempts at change we've seen so far.