Does Reddit still have a child porn problem?


Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney at 16 in Washington, D.C. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Of all the disturbing revelations to come out in the aftermath of last weekend’s “Celebgate” spectacle, perhaps none was more shocking — or more gross — than the fact that Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney says she was underage when her photos were taken.

Maroney, now 18, was one of more than 100 celebrities victimized by a so-called “underground celeb n00d-trading ring,” who strong-armed their way into the women’s Apple iCloud accounts and posted the naked pictures they found there online. The people who hacked the photos already faced theoretical charges ranging from wire fraud to identity theft.

Now they may add a new crime to the list: dissemination of child porn.

Given the seriousness of that allegation (and the legal and PR repercussions it implies), Reddit has been very hasty to address the issue. On Tuesday afternoon, a moderator in the Reddit forum /r/thefappening — the place that arguably did the most to bring the images to a mainstream audience — made a panicked appeal to members to stop posting pictures of Maroney and to delete any existing photos from their hard drives. It also instructs them to stop posting photos of Liz Lee, an MTV star whose underage nude photos were not part of this latest hack but have still been making the Internet rounds.


(Reddit)

Which is all well and good for Maroney and Lee, two public figures with publicists and lawyers and a legion of fans on alert for abuse. It doesn’t do much to help other young women whose photos might end up in questionably tasteful forums like /r/randomsexiness or /r/youngporn, where youthful photos are frequent, provenances are unknown and subjects’ ages are rarely disclosed.

“We have very few rules here on reddit; no spamming, no cheating, no personal info, nothing illegal, and no interfering with the site’s functions,” Reddit declared in a 2012 policy change, made in response to a Gawker article that found troves of child porn in forums like /r/jailbait. “Today we are adding another rule: No suggestive or sexual content featuring minors.”

To that effect, Reddit banned a series of forums that explicitly sexualized children in their names or descriptions. But the site did not do anything to root out photos of underage teens in other forums, besides ask that viewers contact the forums’ (unpaid, anonymous and highly political) moderators with specific concerns.

Part of this situation springs from necessity, of course. Reddit is a sprawling beast: In any given month, it can see well over 100 million visitors who view billions of active and inactive pages.

But part of that is also due to the structure of Reddit’s moderation system, a dense hierarchy of volunteers who, for the most part, are accountable to no one besides the people in their forums. Reddit employs only a handful of “community managers” to oversee them, and even they try to stay militantly hands-off. (“We will tirelessly defend the right to freely share information on reddit in any way we can, even if it is offensive,” the 2012 policy change read.) Forum moderators aren’t exactly honor-bound to field complaints, either.

“I emailed an admin about a preteen_girls thread EXPLICITLY showing photos of child porn,” complained one user in 2012. “Nothing was done, NOTHING, which is what I expected.”

And so, Reddit still hosts virtually every kind of filth and depravity you can conceive of — and probably quite a bit that you can’t. There is rape porn. There are collections of dead children. There are many, many nude photographs of women who appear to be just at, if not under, the age of majority.

Are some of them under 18? Probably. Whenever you provide an open, anonymous and unquestioning forum for pornographic images, a few are going to slip below the line unseen.

Reddit did not respond to a request for comment on the issue, and it’s unclear what, exactly, the site could do to better police the issue. It’s impossible — not to mention against Reddit’s core ethos — to pre-screen the millions of links and images that flow through the site daily. It’s also far from fail-safe to slap a warning on a page and hope that users will happily comply.

Perhaps the bottom line is that there’s always a dark side to what Reddit glibly terms “free speech places” online. Maroney, sadly, is not the only victim — nor is her ordeal over. According to the piracy news site TorrentFreak, more than 1 million people have downloaded the #Celebgate photos from PirateBay, where they remain widely available. And Pirate Bay’s policy on child porn makes Reddit’s look strict.

“To report child abuse or other similar unlawful activities, please do so to your local authority,” the site coolly recommends.

The subtext, both there and and on Reddit: Deal with it yourselves.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · September 2