Reddit bans revenge porn: Victims' advocates and the ACLU react to the new rule against nonconsensual porn.

Reddit Has Banned Revenge Porn. Sort Of.

Reddit Has Banned Revenge Porn. Sort Of.

The Slatest
Your News Companion
Feb. 25 2015 11:36 AM

Reddit Has Banned Revenge Porn. Sort Of.

Reddit bans revenge porn.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jussi Pernaa/Thinkstock

Last August, private nude photos of dozens of female celebrities were hacked, stolen, and published online. The Fappening, as it came to be called, was a collaborative effort between lecherous anonymous users from across the Web. But the event soon became closely associated with Reddit, the largest online platform on which Fappening hackers and supporters spread the photos. Reddit’s administrators seemed unperturbed that their community had been converted, almost overnight, into the world’s highest-profile stolen-porn platform. But after some of the famous women captured in the photos filed takedown requests under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, arguing that Reddit posters had no ownership over the content they were publishing—most were selfies, snapped and owned by the celebs themselves—Reddit admins publicly denounced the theft of the images and dutifully removed them, reducing the platform’s legal liability. Meanwhile, the many non-famous people who have been exposed on the site without their consent—the ones who don’t hold the rights to pictures of themselves, or who lack the lawyers to make a stink—were out of luck.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a David Carr fellow at the New York Times. Follow her on Twitter.

Now, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian is calling Reddit’s response to that event “a missed chance to be a leader” on the revenge porn issue. Starting March 10, nude or sexual images shared without the consent of the subject will be banned from the platform, no DMCA takedown requests required. “No matter who you are, if a photograph, video, or digital image of you in a state of nudity, sexual excitement, or engaged in any act of sexual conduct, is posted or linked to on reddit without your permission, it is prohibited on reddit,” he announced in a post on the site Tuesday. “We also recognize that violent personalized images are a form of harassment that we do not tolerate and we will remove them when notified.”


Advocates for victims of online harassment are impressed. “This announcement is very significant,” says Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami.* “For such an influential and popular social platform to validate what victims and victims advocates have been saying—privacy is about consent, and consent is contextual—is really heartening.” Reddit’s decision also has the potential to influence norms across the Web. By announcing itself as a leader on the issue, Reddit is “throwing down the gauntlet to other platforms” to follow suit, Franks says.

Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland and the author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, adds that Reddit’s rule sets a remarkably fair standard for revenge porn victims seeking to clear the Web of damaging images of themselves. Platforms could easily force victims to “file a police report to verify that the photo is theirs and that it was posted in violation of their trust and without consent in states that ban such invasions of sexual privacy,” Citron says. Instead, Reddit has signaled an openness to taking victims at their word. “The approach arguably strikes the right balance,” says Citron: It respects the fact that “pornography and amateur porn is fully protected speech” while recognizing that “nude images posted without the subjects' consent is a violation of sexual privacy and won't be tolerated.”

Still, Reddit’s rule is far from a final solution to the revenge porn problem. Franks cautions that Reddit’s announcement also functions as “a reminder of the industry's likely hostility to government intervention on these kinds of issues.” It’s perhaps no coincidence that Reddit has finally altered its policies just as Rep. Jackie Speier plans to introduce federal legislation aimed at cracking down on revenge porn—a move that has potentially deleterious implications for platform owners and operators. “Reddit’s move may have in fact been prompted in part by a desire to demonstrate that private companies can handle this problem themselves,” Franks says. And even Reddit, which Franks says is now “leaps and bounds beyond what most platforms are doing,” has room to improve. Franks proposes a “victim-protective” consent form system, wherein “users must submit a signed consent form from the person depicted before they can post private explicit images” on a given website. And Citron imagines that platforms like Reddit could better protect revenge porn victims by compiling private databases of nonconsensual porn—just like ones that already exist for child pornography—that are capable of recognizing offending images and removing them from view automatically.

Civil libertarians are also monitoring the situation, concerned that the anti-revenge-porn rule might be so broad that it ends up censoring lewd speech that doesn’t pose a serious privacy violation. “Creating a takedown regime is often fraught, for reasons unrelated to the content,” says Lee Rowland, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. It remains unclear how Reddit will authenticate requests from victims (after all, anyone who objects to nudity or just wants to troll the site could file a complaint), and how it will deal with nude photos that are snapped outside of private moments—like when a drunk guy streaks at a public football game, sobers up, then wants all evidence of his jaunt erased. Protecting user privacy is “a laudable goal,” Rowland says, and Reddit is within its rights to make decisions about the types of content it hosts on its platform. Still, “anytime a company creates the potential for censorship, it should be very clear about the ground rules in order to avoid making its users frustrated and confused.” She suggests that Reddit send notices to users when their content is removed, and give them the opportunity to challenge the decision with evidence that it did not violate the site’s guidelines.

That sounds like a bit of a logistical nightmare, but it remains to be seen how effective Reddit’s new rule will be in scrubbing revenge porn from the site as is. Notably, the new regulation is addressed to the subjects of non-consensual pornography, not to the Reddit users who actually post the stuff. It puts the onus on revenge porn victims to alert administrators after the fact, not on users to gain consent before posting. Also, while the rule will be incorporated into Reddit’s privacy policy, it does not constitute a violation of the five central Rules of Reddit, and it’s not clear whether users who post revenge porn will be reprimanded or banned for doing so. Ohanian has said that Reddit will tally up “how often these takedowns occur in our yearly privacy report,” but advocates across the spectrum are looking for a degree of transparency that goes beyond statistics. I’ve called Reddit for comment, and will update if I hear back.

*Correction, Feb. 25, 2015: This post originally misspelled Mary Anne Franks' name.