Reddit's new CEO tries to clean up the 'dark side' of the site

The online discussion website is struggling to curb offensive content and even cyberbullying

Once regarded as a freewheeling discussion forum, Reddit is now struggling with creating rules to curb offensive and obscene content on the site, risking alienating a number of users, some of them concerned about protecting freedom of speech on the site.

Reddit's new CEO Steve Huffman on Tuesday called for a discussion, popularly known in Reddit parlance as an AMA for Ask Me Anything, on Thursday on the website's content policy, but cautioned that neither he nor cofounder Alexis Ohanian had set up Reddit to be a "bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen."

"Our top priority at reddit is to develop a comprehensive Content Policy and the tools to enforce it," wrote Huffman, who uses the Reddit handle spez. He said there has been a lot of discussion lately on the site, in the news, and internally about Reddit's policy on the more offensive and obscene content on the platform.

Huffman took over last week after interim chief executive Ellen Pao quit abruptly, following a furor over the exit of a key executive who facilitated the popular AMA sessions. Pao had also battled with freedom of speech issues and drew sharp criticism, including demands for her resignation, after Reddit blocked five communities, known as subreddits, for breaking the website's rules against the harassment of individuals. One of the subreddits, called Fat People Hate, made fun of overweight people.

The new CEO seems to be veering around to Pao's point of view on offensive content and the need to have greater control on what is posted to the website. "We haven't had the tools to enforce policy, but now we're building those tools and reevaluating our policy," he wrote.

He said that Reddit was made great by an overwhelming majority of content on the website that comes from "wonderful, creative, funny, smart, and silly communities." But he pointed out that there was a dark side, consisting of communities "whose purpose is reprehensible, and we don't have any obligation to support them."

Huffman added that he believed some communities currently on the platform should not be there at all.

The remarks by Huffman not unexpectedly met with protests from users, some of whom looked for previous statements by Reddit executives that freedom of speech would be defended on the website. One user pointed to Ohanian describing Reddit as a bastion of free speech in a 2012 interview.

Reddit has been progressively tightening on content posted to its site. It changed its privacy policy earlier this year to prohibit posting of naked photos and sex videos, without the permission of the persons depicted. The move followed the posting of naked images of celebrities to the site, without their permission. The site followed in May with rules prohibiting harassment and attacks on individuals.

The changes at Reddit reflect growing concern about bullying, harassment and other crimes on the Internet, which has forced other social media companies to also change their policies.

"You choose what to post. You choose what to read. You choose what kind of subreddit to create and what kind of rules you will enforce. We will try not to interfere....," Reddit's then CEO Yishan Wong had written in September last year, after the issue over the posting of naked images of celebrities to the site, to emphasize that the site was unlikely to change its liberal content policies. On Tuesday, he was one of the persons often quoted by critics of the changes at hand.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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John Ribeiro

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