Former Reddit CEO defends Ellen Pao as protector of free speech

The former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong takes to the popular news site to reveal more details in what has evolved into a corporate soap opera.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
Expertise I have more than 30 years' experience in journalism in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
Steven Musil
3 min read

Ellen Pao tried to preserve free speech on Reddit, says former CEO. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao may have been doing more to preserve the character of the popular news site than those who demanded her departure fully appreciate.

And now, without her protection, Redditors can expect some dramatic and controversial changes at the community-curated news site, warns former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong. The revelations contained in a Reddit post Tuesday evening are the latest details in what has evolved from a political firing of a key staffer and debates over free speech into a corporate soap opera that culminated with Pao's resignation on Friday.

Wong wrote that Reddit leaders had advocated the banning of some of the site's most controversial communities. But Pao, who Wong paints as a protector of free speech on the site, refused to give in.

"But... the most delicious part of this is that on at least two separate occasions, the board pressed [Pao] to outright ban ALL the hate subreddits in a sweeping purge," Wong wrote. "She resisted, knowing the community, claiming it would be a s**tshow."

Reddit declined to comment on Wong's statements.

Regarded as "the front page of the Internet," Reddit is one of the most trafficked sites on the Web, with nearly 164 million visitors. However, Reddit's devotion to free speech has allowed some of the more unseemly elements of the Internet to fester on the site, including the publishing of private photos taken by celebrities and the growth of racist and homophobic groups.

Pao was becoming an unpopular figure with users as Reddit's name was linked to her gender discrimination lawsuit against prestigious venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Pao joined Reddit as its interim chief executive in November following the resignation of Wong, who left the company after an alleged disagreement with the board over the location and the amount of money to spend on new offices.

Pao came under scrutiny at the San Francisco-based community forum site after an online petition that began in June called for her resignation. Users accused her of ushering in "a new age of censorship," as the petition collected more than 200,000 signatures.

The drive was preceded by the debated removal of five community forums, known as subreddits, as part of the company's newly adopted antiharassment policy, and the sudden firing of Victoria Taylor, Reddit's well-respected director of talent. Wong has previously stirred up controversy at the site by accusing Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian of being behind the firing and then letting Pao "take the heat," an act he called "an incredibly s***ty thing to do."

Wong's comments Tuesday about free speech on the site were an apparent reaction to an announcement earlier in the day by Steve Huffman, Reddit co-founder and the company's original CEO. Huffman, who returned as CEO following Pao's resignation, touched on the free speech issue in announcing that Reddit is "hard at work" on a new policy regarding what sort of content can be posted in forums.

"Neither Alexis nor I created reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen: These are very complicated issues, and we are putting a lot of thought into it," he wrote. "It's something we've been thinking about for quite some time. We haven't had the tools to enforce policy, but now we're building those tools and reevaluating our policy."

Wong defended Pao's character and experience, describing her as his perfect replacement to helm Reddit after his own resignation last year.

"Ellen isn't some 'evil, manipulative, out-of-touch incompetent she-devil' as was often depicted," Wong wrote. "She was the only technology executive anywhere who had the chops and experience to manage a startup of this size, AND who understood what reddit was all about."

Without her, Wong warned in closing, users of the site are on the verge of dramatic policy changes they themselves were responsible for allowing by rejecting their secret defender of free speech.

"Well, now she's gone (you did it reddit!), and [Huffman] has the moral authority as a co-founder to move ahead with the purge," Wong wrote. "We tried to let you govern yourselves and you failed, so now The Man is going to set some Rules. Admittedly, I can't say I'm terribly upset."

Update, July 15 at 11:55 a.m. PT: With Reddit declining to comment.