• Reddit, SOPA, Freedom Of Speech And You.

    One of the great things about the Internet is that you can find any number of equally unique platforms on which to converse, discuss and trade information with one another. Reddit was one of those places, unique in that users themselves could create separate, specialized boards known as "subreddits," tailored to any specific interest. These subreddits and Reddit, as a whole, are not subject to any sort of moderation or administration from above and it's often left to the moderators of the subreddits themselves to enforce etiquette and rules, if there are any. At times, this is treated as a good thing. This time, it wasn't.

    Yesterday, I read up about Reddit's deletion of several unsavory subreddits, most of them having to do with "jailbait." In keeping with their claims of respect for the First Amendment and "free speech," the administration at Reddit was rather reluctant to do anything about reports of users posting and trading pictures featuring underage teens and young children for sexual gratification, even when there were reports of actual child pornography present within these subreddits. At first, it took the attention of CNN's Anderson Cooper along with well-known humor site and social forum Something Awful for Reddit to shut down "jailbait"-related subreddits, but it was business-as-usual for months afterward.

    The people at Something Awful cranked up the pressure, creating a "Redditbomb" that was distributed to practically every outlet possible -- news stations, schools, government officials, bloggers, etc. It was a concerted effort to bring the activities that were going on within those subreddits to light, thereby shocking people into pressuring Advance Publications, the owners of Conde Nast, which in turn once owned Reddit, into cracking down on these activities. This led Reddit to shut down many of the more obvious subreddits and modify their policy on such matters.

    There's been debate about the legality of the pictures within these subreddits, especially those involving "jailbait" (essentially those who are below the Age of Consent in your home country). These included otherwise innocent photos of teenagers pulled from Facebook walls and Myspace profiles, in various states of dress, used largely for varying degrees of sexual satisfaction by many subreddit visitors. One could ask why a subreddit full of otherwise "legal" pictures should be closed and others would more than likely point to the sexual satisfaction aspect. Ditto for those "non-nude" models consisting of children under the age of 16, in various states of dress ranging from fully clothed to scantily-clad.

    As a member, I had a front-row seat to the forum post over at Something Awful that started the whole thing. For those who can't afford or don't want to pay the $10 membership fee, there's a drastically abridged version of it on the main website.

    Throughout the entire episode, I noticed there were three types of people who were upset over these proceedings:

    • Those who believe strongly in the concept of free speech on the Internet, no matter the cost or collateral damage.
    • Those who are genuinely offended over being denied what they see as their right to ogle at and achieve sexual self-gratification via pictures of teens and preteens in photos spanning the entirety of the COPINE scale.
    • Those who have other "guilty pleasures" on Reddit that are not directly related to "jailbait" and see this sea change in moderation as a potential threat to those pleasures.

    The former accept the good that comes with concept of free, unfettered speech (the ability to freely speak without being persecuted politically/religiously/etc.) along with the bad that is bound to turn up (racism/sexism/pornography/etc.). The main argument focuses on how this crackdown sets a precedent for future crackdowns, with the scope of said crackdowns widening until you eventually get to political persecutions and the like. Give the administration (or government entity) an inch and they'll take a mile, a few inches at a time. Even if such crackdowns or self-censoring (which is what Reddit is really doing) are for the good of the website and the general public, it's bound to lead to far more aggressive crackdowns or cases of self-censoring in the future. In the end, it's better to simply ignore the offending content and move on. Given the ability to hand-pick your favorite subreddits to the exclusion of others, it's easy to avoid the offending subreddits, as long as the content doesn't spill over.

    The problem with the argument of the former group is that it places them in uncomfortable proximity with the second group, a collection of individuals who've enjoyed the unfettered access to photos and stories of young children and teens, some of them being "teen models" or "child models" that flirt with the bleeding edge of legality, others being intimate photos yanked from hacked Myspace and Facebook accounts, with the occasional appearance of what could be considered actual child pornography. These photos and stories are often used to derive sexual satisfaction from those who, for whatever reason, find such images arousing. These people even go as far as utilizing some of the arguments used by the first group: the possible repercussions of bringing the hammer down on what is perceived as child pornography, with these people going so far as to question what constitutes child pornography in the first place and whether or not the removal of "jailbait" images, which some argue as not being seen by most as being "child porn" in the classic sense, are even valid in the first place.

    The third group, along with the second, features a wide variety of mentally questionable beings who are genuinely upset over being denied what seems (to them) to be "harmless" activities by what they see as "busybodies" and "puritans." The crackdowns and self-censoring could spill over to their subreddits, as the scope of valid targets deserving of a crackdown expand. Actual child porn today, a fictitious story involving rape tomorrow.

    Most people see the second group as bad news, but given the ability to sequester oneself in their own personal selection of subreddits, it's easy to ignore them. There are plenty of people who've implored the Reddit admins to do something about this group, but those complaints often fell on deaf ears. The subreddit segregation combined with a laissez-faire attitude from the higher-ups created an atmosphere where it was only a matter of time before someone, somewhere, brought the hammer down.

    There's a problem with free, unfettered speech on the Internet: It actually doesn't exist, and for good reason.

    The Internet is a vast place with a largely western and a largely American bias, but many of the concepts enshrined within the U.S. Constitution, concepts that govern American lives, simply don't exist on the Internet. Even though users must abide by the laws of the country they're located in, the Internet itself is a lawless Mad Max landscape -- unless national or international entities have enough support and resources to enforce laws uniformly throughout most of the Internet landscape. The RIAA is doing its damnedest to become the Internet's first U.S. Marshal when it comes to actively seeking and punishing those accused of copyright infringement.

    As a consequence, you make your own rules and regulations in regards to how you want things run. Nearly every website features basic Terms of Service and house rules that outline what you can and can't do. Free and unfettered speech means eliminating most of those rules, since they're by far and large restrictive of said free speech. This attracts people who don't want to be hemmed up or limited in their speech, but it also attracts users intent on abusing or perverting that free speech. It gets to the point where you want to ask if viewing child porn is considered "free speech" or not.

    Here's the problem for Reddit and Advance Publications: free and unfettered speech brings in the good, but if left unchecked, brings in plenty of the bad. If the website's administrators refuse to root out instances of child porn and other such images that could be construed as such, on the grounds of free and unfettered speech for all members, it will eventually find itself under the duress of either legal action or federal investigation.

    And that's where this comes in:
    Senator Lamar Smith, lead sponsor of the currently dead SOPA bill you’ve heard so much about, has another bill in the works that uses Child Pornography as a screen to push through an amendment that’ll have your internet service provider tracking all of your financial dealings online. Each time you use a credit card, each time you read your bank statement, all of your IP information and your search history will be required by your ISP to be stored for 18 months at all times. This bill is H.R. 1981 and will have more dire consequences than SOPA or PIPA ever had the potential to have.

    What it does is to amend several rules that have to do with Child Pornography and preventing it, the bill itself called the “Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011.”

    This bill is the "think of the children" canard on steroids. The underlying fear is that a concerted effort to rid Reddit and the Internet of these unsavory elements could be the stepping stone to genuine suppression in other areas. SOPA/PIPA didn't pass in their current forms, but if they were to be wrapped in the cloak of protecting American citizens from pedophilic content and those who indulge in it, the unsuspecting public would be too caught up in a righteous storm of pitchforks and torches to realize exactly what they're signing.

    A commercial provider of an electronic communication service shall retain for a period of at least one year a log of the temporarily assigned network addresses the provider assigns to a subscriber to or customer of such service that enables the identification of the corresponding customer or subscriber information under subsection (c)(2) of this section.

    (1) to encourage electronic communication service providers to give prompt notice to their customers in the event of a breach of the data retained pursuant to section 2703(h) of title 18 of the United States Code, in order that those effected can take the necessary steps to protect themselves from potential misuse of private information; and

    (2) that records retained pursuant to section 2703(h) of title 18, United States Code, should be stored securely to protect customer privacy and prevent against breaches of the records.

    Beyond your IP address, the above is very vague about what kind of "customer or subscriber information" will be retained for an entire year. There's talk that it's credit card information -- storing credit card info for an entire year sounds like a hacker and credit card theif's dream come true.

    In the interests of preserving free and unfettered speech, the admins at Reddit largely turned a blind eye to a problem that has now attracted plenty of negative attention and the possibility of laws being crafted to obstinately crack down on the problem, laws that could be used to crack down on other things, including political speech deemed undesirable by the governing authorities. Reddit could have nipped the child porn and jailbait problem in the bud by discouraging and removing such images beforehand, but the horses are long out of the barn.

    For those wondering why anyone should bother with shutting down a few "harmless" boards featuring "jailbait," an except from this PCMag article should shed some light:

    The term "society" itself doesn't necessarily reflect the size or diversity of its population; instead, it represents a common set of values, beliefs, and institutions. The United States represents a society, as did the Fiji cannibals of 150 years ago. Or those that consider a 14-year-old in a bikini fair game for lewd comments.

    It's not that far-fetched for some men to go from considering a 14-year-old in a bikini fair game for lewd comments to considering said 14-year-old fair game for sexual activity. One should ask whether they would go as far as tolerating several breeding grounds for sexual behavior towards the youngest and most vulnerable of society's members in the name of free, unfettered speech at all costs. Meanwhile, we should all ask ourselves if cracking down on this activity will end up being the crack that allows SOPA/PIPA's foot to squeeze through the Internet's front door.

    “Freedom of speech is a good thing. Common sense, tact and dignity is even better. Bravo admins. Long overdue,” wrote one Reddit user.

    Common sense, tact, and dignity ARE NOT BETTER THAN FREEDOM OF SPEECH,” countered another user.

    Is freedom of speech more important than removing environments that allow behaviors that sexually exploit and threaten children and young teens to thrive and propagate? That's a debate that would burn most discussion forums to the ground. I would have to say that they're all equally important and that each one has to be taken in moderation.