"We missed a chance to be a leader": Can Reddit's new policies really prevent "involuntary pornography"?

The site announced changes to prevent another "Fappening" -- but it's entering tricky territory in defining consent

By Jenny Kutner
Published February 25, 2015 5:01PM (EST)
                 (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=3177374'>James Brey</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>/Salon)
(James Brey via iStock/Salon)

Nearly six months after it became a central location for viewing hundreds of stolen celebrity nude photos, Reddit on Tuesday announced updates to its privacy policy that ban "involuntary pornography," admitting to its own failure to remove nude photos posted without the subject's consent during last year's "Fappening." In a short statement from Reddit execs, the site referred back to its efforts to remain "neutral" on shutting down forums littered with hacked images of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Gabrielle Union and dozens of other female celebrities:

Last year, we missed a chance to be a leader in social media when it comes to protecting your privacy -- something we’ve cared deeply about since reddit’s inception. At our recent all hands company meeting, this was something that we all, as a company, decided we needed to address.

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. We also recognize that violent personalized images are a form of harassment that we do not tolerate and we will remove them when notified. As usual, the revised Privacy Policy will go into effect in two weeks, on March 10, 2015.

The statement added that the frequency of takedowns will be disclosed in Reddit's annual privacy report, but that's about as far as the site has gone in explaining how the new policy will be implemented. There’s no doubt the change is a huge victory, and likely a major step forward, for advocates of “revenge porn” victims and for anyone at risk of having sensitive images posted online without consent. It follows a trend of social media platforms recognizing different forms of online harassment, admitting their own complicity in allowing it and trying to step up their game.

But there are a lot of questions still to be answered about what Reddit’s new policy will actually do, and whether it will go far enough. First and foremost, there’s the issue of consent. Reddit’s new policy stipulates that “a link to a photograph, video or digital image” of someone “in a state of nudity or engaged in any act of sexual conduct,” which the subject believes was submitted to the site without permission, is prohibited — but what sort of permission needs to be granted? It’s the same question we have so much trouble grappling with when it comes to affirmative consent and sexual assault on college campuses, to use one example, and one that warrants more discussion — as well as, perhaps, a straightforward definition from Reddit.

And, while the updates could prevent Reddit from becoming another outlet for massive privacy violations, the move seems reactive in a way that overlooks other forms of harassment on the platform. The focus on nudity and sexual conduct would imply the policy doesn’t cover “upskirt” photos or other “creepshots” both taken and posted without consent. Legally, these images are often not considered pornographic, and likely wouldn’t fall under Reddit’s “involuntary pornography” heading. But they are violating and nonconsensual, and they have quite a following. Reddit has made moves to address creepshots before, but how they factor into the new policy is unclear.

Again, none of this is to say Reddit isn’t taking a step in the right direction. Identifying specific problems (the entirety of the Fappening) and formulating solutions (banning nude photos posted without consent) should be integral to the process of running a social media platform. That much is obvious. But these changes can and should be made transparently, with guides to implementation and clear standards for consent. The definitions here are what’s tricky in the first place, in real life and online. Failing to acknowledge the ongoing dialogue about consent keeps us from contemplating the ownership not only of sensitive content, but of people’s bodies and sexuality IRL.

And it also allows us to continue to ignore other forms of harassment that crop up on social media, without eradicating the root of the problem. There is only so much Reddit alone can do to prevent involuntary pornography from being posted, on its site or anywhere else. But the problem with posting photos non-consensually isn’t so much the photos themselves as it is the motivation and act of posting. Without more nuanced conversations about consent, which Reddit seems to have tried to avoid, these images might just go elsewhere. For all we know, this new privacy policy could be enforced successfully and do a great job of cleaning up Reddit — but it could turn 4chan into an even worse cesspool of revenge porn and misogyny than it already is. Maybe (hopefully) that is the larger problem Reddit hopes to target — it just might have to dig a little deeper.

Updated, 1:10 PM EST: A representative from Reddit reached out to Salon with a comment on the new privacy policy:

What we're hoping to do with yesterday's announcement is help lead the way for privacy in the digital age by doing what we can to protect individuals on reddit. We will be removing content that violates our new policies on reddit as it is reported to our team by members of the community. By putting these steps in place to protect our users, we aim to continue to grow as a platform that offers a safe space for people to be themselves without infringing upon the rights of others.

Jenny Kutner

MORE FROM Jenny KutnerFOLLOW @JennyKutner