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Prepare for the Reddit-tatorship: New CEO poised to limit free speech

Reddit's co-founder, now CEO, plans to clamp down on offensive posts, but risks further angering the site's users. That should make for a lively "Ask Me Anything" forum Thursday afternoon.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Max Taves Staff Reporter
Max writes about venture capitalism and startups while seeking out the new new thing to come out of Silicon Valley. He joined CNET News from The Wall Street Journal, where he contributed stories on commercial real estate, architecture, big data and more. He's also written for LA Weekly, Slate and American Lawyer Media's The Recorder, where he covered legal battles in Silicon Valley. Max holds degrees from Georgetown University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
Terry Collins
Max Taves
7 min read

Steve Huffman, Reddit's returning CEO, says the site was never intended to be a "bastion of free speech." Reddit

After months of drama inside Reddit, its newest CEO will hold an online town-hall meeting Thursday hoping to reconnect with the users and volunteers depended upon to run the popular community website.

It won't be easy. Hundreds of thousands of users are unhappy with Reddit and its management. They claim the San Francisco-based company that owns one of the most trafficked sites on the Internet has lost its way. Through a Change.org petition with more than 200,000 supporters, they called for the ouster of Ellen Pao, a controversial figure and the company's previous CEO, after Reddit changed its policy about what people can post online and fired a popular employee.

Users got what they wanted when Pao resigned July 10. Now, it's up to Steve Huffman, a Reddit co-founder who returned as CEO -- the company's third since November -- to find a middle ground. Huffman said he admires the site's quirky, fun and smart users, but Reddit has a dark side that needs to be addressed.

"Some communities currently on the platform should not be here at all," Huffman wrote in a post Tuesday. Reddit was never intended to be a "bastion of free speech," he added. "We as a community need to decide together what our values are. 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."

Some users, or Redditors as they call themselves, reacted with outrage, skepticism and charges of hypocrisy after Huffman announced his upcoming "Ask Me Anything"-style event, planned for 1 p.m. PT Thursday. "It's the total lack of transparency and condescension that is fueling so much of this anger," wrote one user, with the screenname The Adventurist. "This is Reddit, not Comcast. Just level with us."

Interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao resigned over differences with the social-news site's board members. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Reddit seems to be at war with itself. With nearly 164 million monthly visitors, the online message board bills itself as the "front page of the Internet." But that size brings challenges the company has had trouble managing. It's become infamous for postings and forums that many find offensive, including ones that are misogynistic, homophobic and racist. Last year, Redditors posted nude celebrity photos stolen from Apple's iCloud service, hosted racist dialogue and served as a staging ground for attacks against feminist critics of video games.

Reddit's users, taking advantage of the site's perceived roots as a haven for free speech, have turned it into an online arena where nearly anything goes. Many people were unhappy with Pao when she announced the site's first-ever antiharassment policy in May and warned it would no longer tolerate actions designed to "torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person (1) conclude that Reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or (2) fear for their safety or the safety of those around them."

Reddit, started by then-college roommates Alexis Ohanian and Huffman in 2005, is a privately held company. Ohanian and Huffman sold it in 2006 to Advance Publications, the parent company of Conde Nast, which publishes magazines including GQ and Vanity Fair. In October, Reddit raised $50 million in funding from prominent venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital, noted angel investors Ron Conway and Peter Thiel, and entertainers Jared Leto and Snoop Dogg.

Watch this: Explaining the Reddit Revolt

Ohanian, Pao, former CEO Yishan Wong, and Reddit's investors either declined to comment or didn't respond to a request for comment. Reddit also declined to make Huffman available for comment.

In an opinion piece for The Washington Post on Thursday, Pao said the Internet started as a "bastion for free expression" and diverse ideas. However, she added, that openness has enabled harassment, citing a Pew Research Center 2014 study that said about 40 percent of online users have experienced bullying, harassment and intimidation.

"Balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants has always been a challenge for open-content platforms on the Internet," she wrote. "But that balancing act is getting harder. The trolls are winning."

When asked about Thursday's anticipated raucous question-and-answer session between Huffman and Reddit users, Sam Altman, a Reddit board member and early investor, responded, "Get excited!"

Too many cooks in the kitchen

Users are talking. Less than 24 hours after Huffman announced he would publicly discuss Reddit's policies toward monitoring offensive content in the pending "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) session, more than 17,000 comments were posted, many attacking Reddit's recent attempts to make nice.

One of the most common criticisms focused on the company's lack of transparency. Users complained about Reddit's decision last month to ban five controversial communities, or "subreddits," including one called FatPeopleHate. Others wrote that Reddit's new policy of stomping out offensive groups and speech was a reversal of its 2012 pledge to "tirelessly defend the right to share information on reddit in any way we can, even if it is offensive or discusses something that may be illegal."

A Redditor calling himself vertigo3pc says the company's attempt to make peace with the community will fail. "Why haven't the warring nations of the world, ethnic groups pledged to destroying each other, and all people everywhere agreed to do that?" the user asked rhetorically. "They can't."

Pao's exit last week sparked questions about Reddit's direction and how it should act. Users blamed Pao for shuttering the controversial forums and for firing Victoria Taylor, a well-liked employee who served as a liaison between Reddit and its community, including those running the popular AMAs that have attracted high-profile speakers including President Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Madonna and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Ohanian intimated in a podcast on Friday after Pao's resignation that he was the one behind Taylor's firing.

"Basically it was just a big screwup and, at the end of the day, I take a ton of responsibility for that," he said. "I really feel terrible."

But while Huffman and Ohanian have made some comments, the company has erred by refusing to elaborate, leaving it to others to weigh in on its actions.

Former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong has defended Ellen Pao as a protector of free speech on Reddit. Yishan Wong/Twitter

That role has been filled by former CEO Wong, who left in November. He defended Pao in a scathing post on Tuesday that claimed the company made her a scapegoat. Wong said Reddit's co-founders never intended to make the site a bastion of free speech and it was actually Pao who defended the community's right to post whatever it wanted.

"The most delicious part of this is that on two separate occasions, the board pressed [Pao] to outright ban ALL of the hate subreddits in a sweeping purge. She resisted, knowing the community, claiming it would be" a disaster," Wong wrote. Reddit banned the FatPeopleHate forum "for inciting off-site harassment, not for discussing fat-shaming."

Reddit spokeswoman Ashley Dawkins declined to comment on Wong's statements.

Pao's high-profile departure drew attention to what has already become a deep schism between the company and its users and has renewed debate about the role of women in the technology industry. Pao lost a $16 million gender discrimination lawsuit against famed venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in March, with some Redditors using the case to describe her as a fortune hunter. In the Change.org petition calling for her ouster, she was described as "a manipulative individual who will sue her way to the top."

On Monday, chief engineer Bethanye Blount resigned after only two months on the job. She said in an interview with Recode that she couldn't deliver on promises the company has been making to users. Reddit, she said, had pushed Pao onto "a glass cliff," a term used to describe the phenomenon of women being likelier than men to be put in a leadership role during a crisis because the chance of failure is highest.

Surprisingly, someone using Pao's account was active on Reddit Tuesday, this time as an honorary moderator of the community called CasualConversation. Many users apologized and asked what's she been up to in the days since her departure. The supposed Pao said she has been hanging out with family, friends and, of course, watching Reddit.

"I imagine your life is better when you don't have the cesspool of the Internet breathing down your neck in anger," responded user, Kejjeh.

Another user, ArchmageJesus, praised her leadership. "Thanks for trying to do what you thought was right, and for sticking up for those people who need it most," the user wrote. "I wish I could give you a hug."

In light of Wong's comments, one of the top posts on Reddit has been a demand for the company to apologize to Pao. And, there's even a new petition on Change.org -- to bring Pao back as Reddit CEO. It asked Advance Publications to "fix this ordeal or risk irreversible harm" to Reddit.

"Action must be taken to prevent Reddit from being further run into the ground," it said. "Bring back Ellen Pao."

The petition had received more than 300 supporters as of Wednesday night.

Update, 10:15 a.m. PT: With comments from Pao's opinion piece in The Washington Post.

CNET's Ian Sherr contributed to this report.