Anonymity and its limits: Reddit v Gawker

Last updated 08:54 16/10/2012

Freedom is rarely absolute. Yelling fire in a crowded movie theatre, expressing your religion by killing people - everything has a limit. I'm generally a fan of anonymity online. I like that anyone can be anyone, it's often hilarious, and it encourages conversation free of pretence. The freedom to remain anonymous has a limit, however: when you post a bomb threat or creepy photos of women without telling them.

You might have heard about this controversy over the past few days. Basically, Gawker threatened (and followed through) uncovering the real identity of a notorious Reddit troll, and some Redditors threatened to release the real names of /r/creepshots mods. Creepshots was a forum for posting covert sexual pictures of women unaware that they were being photographed.

Many on Reddit got pretty mad - Gawker was banned from the site for a time. Creepshots was voluntarily banned, the mods scared off by the possibility of their real-life details being released. You see, revealing personal details is against the rules of Reddit - who take being a neutral platform/freedom of speech very seriously. The backlash from many in the Reddit community has been strong - anonymity is important to many - and the fear is that exposing users' details will now become the norm with any conflict. I understand this fear - but I think it is unfounded.

A lot of people have posted stuff anonymously that they would be horrified to have released to the public. That is totally fine. There is a line that we should all be able to understand here. Ninety-nine per cent of anonymous discussion deserves to remain that way - weird fetishes, fringe political views, gossip - but creepshots of other people is over the line. We all accept that child porn is over the line, so we are obviously fine with not being absolutists. Creepshots aren't just something that people find icky - think MLP porn or libertarianism - it directly victimises people.

I've never been a "witchhunt the pedos" kinda guy, but if this is what it took for them to shut down Creepshots then so be it. The ones threatening the release of names weren't chasing down a guy who hasn't offended in years, they were trying to stop something that was happening every day. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom to distribute sexualised photos of strangers, but I think you could make a pretty good case for it covering the name of a creepshot mod. I can understand a variance of opinion with the release of names though; I just think Creepshots should have been shut down by Reddit itself months ago. I'm sure there is someone who works there whom most of the community could trust to draw a line between "distasteful" and "horrific". 
I wouldn't want everything I have ever posted in various anonymous places revealed at all, but there is a difference between stupid stuff I said when I was 15 and something like creepshots. What do y'all think?

Email Henry or follow him on Twitter.

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