THR Web Features   /   August 7, 2015

The Quandary of Internet Openness

Joseph Kreiter

"Sleep is the enemy," by Hobvias Sudoneighm via flickr

The Internet is a strange animal: dedicated to free expression, it also protects bigotry and harassment. It has birthed revolutions and movements such as the Arab Spring and #BlackLivesMatter, and it offers a sense of community to those who feel isolated or alone. At the same time, however, the anonymity it affords makes the Internet a platform for racism, misogyny, homophobia, bullying, and other forms of aggression. On the Internet, values of free expression are pitted against those of providing protection and comfort for its users, and it is unclear how one is to be upheld without coming at the cost of the other. The recent departure of Ellen Pao as CEO of Reddit serves as a compelling illustration of this quandary.

Early in July, news broke that Ellen Pao, interim CEO of the popular online messaging board, Reddit, had stepped down. The move came as a response to the outcry against Pao and her administrative team for recent decisions made at the company, including the firing of Victoria Taylor, a Reddit executive who was popular among community members. Pao also came under fire for initiating efforts to reduce harassment and hostility on Reddit by removing offensive content from boards, including entire “subreddits” (users' posts organized around single topics) containing racist, fat shaming, homophobic and transphobic content. In June, a petition appeared calling for Pao’s ouster, alleging that Reddit had “entered into a new age of censorship” since her arrival in November 2014. The petition eventually gathered more than 200,000 signatures. Around the same time, hundreds of subreddits were made unavailable by the website’s volunteer moderators in response to Taylor’s sudden and unexplained firing. Prompted to respond to these demonstrations, Pao issued a public apology to the community in which she acknowledged that she and her team had “screwed up” and vowed to maintain better communication between administrators and the community. Nonetheless, Pao resigned mere days later.

Despite its size—in 2013, Reddit boasted 731 million unique visitors and 56 billion page views—the community of users is tight-knit and loyal, bound together by its devotion to the value of free discourse and a commitment to keeping Reddit relevant as an information resource. Its members are also known for identifying with and uniting for causes (however superfluous). As the Ellen Pao incident proved, Reddit users are also wary of corporate intervention, distrustful that paid administrators always know what is best. Their response to what they deemed unnecessary "censorship" and a lack of transparency served as a check on Reddit's corporate power over the community it created. To the common Redditor, this was a movement for the protection of Reddit itself. But to hear Ellen Pao tell the tale, the efforts against her amount to little more than online bullying.

In a July 16 Washington Post online op-ed piece discussing the events surrounding her resignation, Pao claims to have received harassing messages and death threats from angry Reddit users and describes herself as a victim of “one of the largest trolling attacks in history." (A “troll” is someone who intentionally provokes and harasses others in online forums. Protected by anonymity, trolls often bait and attack their targets with provocative, bigoted language.) Exercising her right to free expression, Pao spotlights in her editorial how her security and peace of mind had been compromised by people who took advantage of a public forum to attack her and others. Her story is reflective of the difficulty of, as she puts it,  “balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants."

Pao warns that "the trolls are winning," that the value of free expression has come to take primacy over the protection of the Internet's users. At the root of trolling lies the belief that expression can and should be unfettered, unconstrained even by civility or decency, and that those who might be offended should just "stay away." But staying away from the Internet is simply unthinkable to those for whom being online is an integral part of daily life. To engage with others on the Internet is to recognize and accept, perhaps uneasily, that interaction comes with risk—just as it does in face-to-face encounters. The anxiety is legitimate and real, but if we want the Internet to remain free and open for everyone, is it right to exclude bullies and jerks? The Reddit community's message to Ellen Pao was that she couldn't have it both ways—either the Internet is free and open or it is not.

It would be inaccurate (and uncivil) to dismiss all of the more than 200,000 signers of the petition against Pao as mere Internet trolls. In truth, the majority of the signers were likely just concerned users who felt affronted by the changes being made to their cherished website. Be that as it may, in uniting to remove Pao, the Reddit community stood not only against "censorship," but also against efforts to make the website safer for all of its users. More than anything, what this case reveals is that online communities have the power to enact real-world change—that the Internet has a voice. The question that remains is whether or not this a voice with which we would like to identify.