Reddit’s Apology and the Question of Ethical Culpability

April 22, 2013 § 7 Comments

too much real life

Over on Gawker, noted Reddit-warrior Adrian Chen just posted a short article discussing Reddit General Manager Erik Martin’s decision to apologize for the site’s role in the Boston bombing vigilante witch hunts. The apology is straightforward enough, but what interests me more is Chen’s response to a commenter asking about the legal implications of the Sunil Tripathi case (recall that Tripathi found himself at the top of Reddit’s suspect list). Essentially, does Tripathi’s family have legal grounds to sue Reddit for libel? Chen says no, stating that

I don’t think the family would have a case against Reddit, which is protected from liability over what its users post by the DMCA safe harbor provision. But they could go after individual Redditors.

The problem is, the DMCA –Digital Millennium Copyright Act– is geared towards just that, copyright. I can see how Reddit wouldn’t and couldn’t be held legally responsible for copyrighted content posted to the site, but what happened in the wake of the Boston bombings isn’t copyright violation, it’s libel (though whether it would -also?- qualify as slander isn’t entirely clear to me — the content was posted in written form, but also spread in that not-quite-writing-not-quite-speech gray area that is internet, and in some cases was eventually published by actual news outlets).

Furthermore, in the case of copyrighted content, the platform is only not legally liable if it immediately removes whatever infringing content. Refusal to comply with the takedown notification forfeits any claims to safe harbor. Not only was Reddit not dealing with copyrighted content, they hosted the content for days — either because they were caught up in the craziness and were simply preoccupied, or because they were drinking their own Kool-Aid and were so enamored of the press they’d get if they DID solve the case that they didn’t stop and consider what would happen if they failed. I mean despite the fact that posting personal, identifying information onto Reddit is in direct violation of their own terms of service:

You may not provide to or post on or through the Website any graphics, text, photographs, images, video, audio or other material that invades anyone’s privacy, or facilitates or encourages conduct that would constitute a criminal offense, give rise to civil liability, or that otherwise violates any local, state, federal, national or international law or regulation (e.g., drug use, underage drinking). You agree to use the Website only for lawful purposes and you acknowledge that your failure to do so may subject you to civil and criminal liability.

You know, details.

Yes, the initial racist whack-a-mole doxxing thread (r/findbostonbombers) was eventually deleted by the site admins (subsequent to posting the above article, Chen tweeted this link to Redditors’ reactions to the that decision), but not until two days into their ill-fated investigation. By that point, the damage had already been done. But it’s not like people weren’t already voicing their concerns about Reddit’s vigilante amateur hour even while the r/findbostonbombers thread was live. Some of the sanest people in the conversation proved to be other Redditors, who urged the vigilante hivemind to grow a brain and control itself. Given that, Reddit’s admins could have –and arguably should have– deleted the misinformation honeypots as they were created, not after they became a problem slash liability.

The fact is, if Redditors were posting kiddie porn (and not jailbait pics, you know, per usual, but explicit content that meets the legal criteria of child pornography) and Reddit admins so much as debated whether or not to delete the content, this wouldn’t even be a conversation. Game over, goose cooked, etc. But the issue here is much fuzzier.

But even if you take the legal question off the table (I’m not even sure a crime was committed), the ethical question remains. At what point should site administrators (i.e. the people whose website it is) step in and preempt this sort of damaging content before it gets loose and begins terrorizing the online countryside? Yes I know, slippery slope, and FREE SPEECH (incidentally, many of the Redditors reacting to the admin’s decision to can r/findbostonbombers were incensed by the admin’s decision, because THIS IS AMERICA), but imagine if you were Sunil Tripathi’s family — I suspect that if you were given a choice between having your life turned upside down, again, and knowing that a few threads would be unceremoniously deleted off a pseudonymous online forum before anyone even noticed they were there, thus resulting in the nation NOT falsely accusing your missing son of being terrorist, I don’t think you or anyone would hesitate to push that button.

I don’t know any of the answers here, for the record.

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§ 7 Responses to Reddit’s Apology and the Question of Ethical Culpability

  • These are exactly the kinds of concerns I have expressed in the past on our own site. I get very leery when people start throwing around statements that could be construed as libel. This is an area that has not been rigorously tested, mainly because the law has yet to catch up with technology. I frankly don’t want my site to become a possible testbed of the law. So when people start casually calling Ben Roethlisberger a rapist or O.J. Simpson a murderer, I try to shut it down immediately. Regardless of what people think personally, they were exonerated in a court of law. There are probably nuanced ways one can express one’s opinion that are not libelous, but to come straight out and say, “Roethlisberger raped that girl” has to be questionable from a legal standpoint. I encourage mods to delete such statements on sight. Whether they do, I don’t know.

    • Yes this is one of those areas where strong, smart moderation is our friend. Once something gets loose, there’s no stopping it — not even after an apology is issued, not even after the truth is revealed. The best way to deal with this sort of content –content that doesn’t serve any real purpose, other than to clutter the tubes with baseless speculation–is to shut it down immediately. In these sorts of cases, I have no patience for the “free speech” defense. It’s facile and that’s not even what the issue is. Even if you’re pushing for free speech as an ideal, rather than a legal statute, the defense is still facile —– it presumes that your (perceived) right to say whatever stupid and potentially harmful thing on the internet is more important then the other person’s feelings and reputation…

  • You’re right, the DMCA is about copyright infringement — not libel. That said, there is a strong argument to made about DMCA’s safe harbor as model. The US government has taken those steps and it’s part of the Communications Decency Act.

    The CDA, US 47, Section 230 provides immunity if the ‘interactive computer service’

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_230_of_the_Communications_Decency_Act

    But they must pass a three part test:
    1) The defendant (i.e. Reddit) must be a “provider or user” of an “interactive computer service.”
    2) The cause of action asserted by the plaintiff must “treat” the defendant “as the publisher or speaker” of the harmful information at issue.
    3) The information must be “provided by another information content provider,” i.e., the defendant must not be the “information content provider” of the harmful information at issue.

    So, my non-lawyer understanding is that Reddit is probably in clear. But that’s not to say that this couldn’t be challenged. Historically, taking action such as censoring /r/findbostonbombers would probably work to their credit.

    • What’s interesting about the Reddit Boston case is that we’re not working with any exact legal precedent, at least not as far as I know. There have been similar cases dealing with different media (i.e. print journalism) and different crimes (i.e. child pornography, copyright), but nothing like this. Again, as far as I know. I am particularly curious about the distinction between content platform and “publisher or speaker” — I could see arguments on both sides as to Reddit’s status. They may not publish content like a traditional media outlet (there are no editors, for one), but they do host content, and this content is subject to upvoting processes, which means that while, say, Erik Martin is certainly not personally responsible for what other Redditors post, the site-as-social-network is, in a sense at least. This network can be overridden, so the question for me isn’t so much “are Reddit’s owners/admins guilty of libel” but rather “were Rettit’s owners/admins criminally negligent in their reluctance to delete the doxxing threads.” Very curious to see where this goes…

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