16 October 2012

The curious case of Michael Brutsch

"Liberty exists in proportion to wholesome restraint."

 - Daniel Webster, May 10, 1847

If you follow the Internet closely you may have heard about Michael Brutsch, a moderator on the wildly popular site Reddit who went by the name Violentacrez.  Brutsch gained his notoriety, anonymously, as a troll - someone who enjoys annoying people by posting provocative, incredibly offensive material online. Brutsch reportedly posted a wide variety of racist, sexist items - sometimes publishing close-up "creepshot" pictures of women's bodies, taken without their knowledge or consent. As he did this he cultivated strong relationships with many members of the (small) staff at Reddit, providing himself a layer of protection when calls inevitably came to ban the content he published and promoted. 

Last week Brutsch was outed by Adrian Chen, a writer at Gawker. Once his name was associated with his words, and with the content he promoted, Brutsch lost his job at a financial services company. Other people have launched similar efforts to identify those who posted the same kind of material, and one might expect consequences there as well.  

The Reddit community has reacted with shock and horror at these developments - not with horror at Brutsch's content, but at Chen's outing of him. "Doxing" - that is, revealing the identity of an anonymous online contributor - is prohibited at Reddit, and there are plenty of decent arguments to be made about protecting one's right to communicate anonymously (protecting whistleblowers, avoiding harassment, escaping abusive situations, and so on).  "Free speech" is sacred at Reddit, and one would think that censorship is considered sinful there. 

Here's where I get confused. 

Reddit banned links to Gawker from it site. (they removed the ban on the main site a bit later, but the ban remains in effect on moderator-controlled "subreddits.")  This was in reaction to something Adrian Chen did when he wasn't on Reddit, so it's not like he violated the site's terms of service. 

Brutsch published whatever he wanted - even when it was arguably violating the privacy of those he and others photographed.  Chen also published what he wanted - even when it was arguably violating Brutsch's privacy.  (Brutsch wasn't all that careful about protecting his identity, especially around other Redditors at social gatherings near his home.)  So controversial speech was met not with bans, not with restrictions, but with more speech - speech that compelled a provocateur to own his words and deeds.

Brutsch isn't in jail.  He isn't prevented from posting content to Reddit again.  He isn't prevented from stating his case on why Chen is wrong.  The only website engaging in censorship in this dispute is Reddit. 

I'd like to think I'm a strident advocate of free speech.  I understand that banning speech (or even creating a chilling effect) many deem offensive is a slippery slope.  But there are plenty of technology-induced free-speech hiccups that deserve more attention. In my opinion, Adrian Chen's free speech was the solution, not the problem.

I'm open to other opinions, but right now I think Reddit looks pretty silly.

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