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Reddit clamps down on 'involuntary pornography'

A privacy update means people whose private photos have been posted on Reddit without their consent can have them removed.

Reddit has been criticized for allowing objectionable content to remain online in various forums. A new policy shift is designed to shield people from having personal imagery posted to the site.
Reddit has been criticized for allowing objectionable content to remain online in various forums. A new policy shift is designed to shield people from having personal imagery posted to the site. Reddit

The wildly popular social news and networking site Reddit is updating its privacy policy to protect victims of so-called "involuntary pornography."

The change is set to take effect in two weeks and will prohibit users from posting to Reddit any photograph, video or digital image that contains sexually explicit content involving a person that has not approved publication. The company said "violent personalized images" will also be removed from the site.

"Reddit is committed to your privacy," the company's updated privacy policy reads. "If you believe that someone has submitted, without your permission, to Reddit a link to a photograph, video or digital image of you in a state of nudity or engaged in any act of sexual conduct, please contact us, and we will expedite its removal as quickly as possible. Reddit prohibits the posting of such content without consent."

Reddit, which now has nearly 160 million active users, has long prided itself on being a place where people can share whatever they want, whenever they want. Indeed, the company's focus on freedom of expression has helped it attract people to topics ranging from food to movies. In total, Reddit now has over 9,000 active communities, called subreddits, where participants share content and have discussions on a particular topic.

However, that spirit of acceptance has also bred an undercurrent of small, user-driven communities that center on potentially illicit activities. In 2012 for instance, Reddit banned all subreddits containing sexually suggestive images of children, after the company was hit with a wave of criticism following the discovery of a subreddit called "/r/preteen_girls." The discovery came just months after Reddit shut down another section, called "Jailbait," that contained explicit images of underage children.

In a statement at the time, Reddit said it was actively removing illegal content from its site, but it added that a legal gray area kept it from banning certain subreddits outright. Bowing to the criticism, however, Reddit decided to eliminate all subreddits that may have fallen into that gray area around depictions of children.

"We have changed our policy because interpreting the vague and debated legal guidelines on a case by case basis has become a massive distraction and risks Reddit being pulled in to legal quagmire," the company said in a statement then, titled "A necessary change in policy."

But Reddit also reassured its users that freedom of expression would stand on its site.

"We understand that this might make some of you worried about the slippery slope from banning one specific type of content to banning other types of content," the site's statement said. "We're concerned about that too, and do not make this policy change lightly or without careful deliberation. We will tirelessly defend the right to freely share information on Reddit in any way we can, even if it is offensive or discusses something that may be illegal."

As Reddit and its topics have grown, the company has stuck to its guns on free speech. However, maneuvering through the legal minefield that is the so-called gray area can be difficult, and Reddit said this week that it must play a role in protecting people.

Time to lead

Over the last few years, a disturbing trend has developed, as "revenge porn" sites have cropped up on the Web. People disgruntled with their past relationships take to the sites to post sexually explicit images or videos of their former partners, without the partner's knowledge.

In 2014, several sites were taken down for violating a person's privacy or acting unlawfully. Last March, the owner of a revenge porn site was ordered by a judge to pay $385,000 in damages to a woman who had images of her when she was underage published to the site.

Reddit's new privacy policy does not mention revenge porn by name, but it should affect those who have used the service to share such content.

The privacy policy change also calls to mind how Reddit handled last year's leak of nude photos of several prominent celebrities. The images, which were apparently stolen from the iCloud accounts owned by actress Jennifer Lawrence, model Kate Upton and recording artist Ariana Grande, among others, were quickly published to Reddit and spread across the Web. Reddit eventually removed the photos from its service but was criticized for being slow to respond.

In its statement this week, Reddit acknowledged the incident, saying it had "missed a chance to be a leader in social media when it comes to protecting your privacy" and that it now wants to address that.

Reddit's announcement comes against the backdrop of another announcement, from Google's Blogger. The search giant said that starting next month, any Blogger blog that contains sexually explicit content will be made private and inaccessible to the public.

Like Reddit, Google has argued that Blogger should remain a place for freedom of expression, but the company said earlier this week that "to uphold these values, we need to curb abuses that threaten our ability to provide this service and the freedom of expression it encourages. As a result, there are some boundaries on the type of content that can be hosted with Blogger."

For its part, Reddit said it's proud to be part of the social community that's looking at improving personal privacy, adding that it will share information in its annual transparency report on how many "takedowns" result from the change to the privacy policy.

"We made Reddit to be the world's best platform for communities to be informed about whatever interests them," the company wrote in a blog post. "We're learning together as we go, and today's changes are going to help grow Reddit for the next 10 years and beyond."

Reddit did not immediately respond to a request for comment.