Water.org and the Prostate Cancer Foundation both politely returned donations made by Redditors “in honor of” the naked celebrities they invasively ogled when their stolen photos were leaked online last week.
But Reddit itself — corporate Reddit, owned-in-part-by-Advance-Media Reddit, currently-seeking-a-major-funding-round Reddit — also profited from the spread of stolen celebrity photos. And unlike the charities, it has no plans to give that money back.
Reddit, like most social networks, makes money from display advertising. In a revenue stream unique to the social news site, it also encourages users to purchase something called “Reddit Gold,” a sort of monthly membership program that unlocks special features and helps pay for Reddit’s operating costs. Redditors can buy gold for other members as a way to say they appreciate their work, which means that specific users, posts and subreddits generate money for Reddit, based on how popular they are.
The amount of money in question is small: Enough to run Reddit’s servers for a month, John Menese, the founder of the forum that posted the photos, told Wired in a story published Wednesday morning. (By our calculations, that works out to roughly $671.)
In either case, Reddit’s celebrity-nude profits are no windfall. But regardless of the amount, there’s presumably some kind of principle at stake: After all, principles are why Water.org and the Prostate Cancer Foundation returned the donations made by Redditors. (“We would never condone raising funds for cancer research in this manner,” the PCF said.) And principles are how Reddit has explained each of its increasingly confounding actions over the course of the scandal, first swearing to keep the photos up, then taking them down, then publishing a series of self-contradicting pseudo-philosophical treatises that claimed, among other things, that Reddit found nude trafficking “deplorable” but felt “every man is responsible for his own soul.” (Reddit’s CEO later clarified — kind of? — that the use of the masculine there was deliberate.)
“This is a tricky issue, one which we haven’t figured out yet and that I’d welcome input on,” Jason Harvey, a systems administrator, wrote of the site’s nude profits Monday. “Gold was purchased by our users, to give to other users. Redirecting their funds to a random charity which the original payer may not support is not something we’re going to do.”
Except … there’s actually a bit of a precedent for that. Just last February, Reddit announced it was donating 10 percent of its ad revenue to charity, based on votes from the community: Redditors could pick the nonprofit groups of their choice, and Reddit promised to disburse the funds proportionately to the top 10 organizations, based on the percentage of votes each got. Ad revenue does not come directly from users, of course. But it still demonstrates Reddit’s ability, and willingness, to distribute funds to charity according to the community’s wishes.
There’s an easier option, too, of course: Reddit could just give the money back.
Reddit did not respond to requests for comment, and it’s unclear if their thinking on this has changed from the time of Harvey’s post. But maybe a different kind of outcry will inspire the site to action.
“You could always follow the suit of the Prostate Cancer Foundation and return the money generated from someone else’s stolen images and likeness used for commercial gain,” one user wrote. “I’m somewhat amazed an enterprising attorney hasn’t hopped on that tort claim yet.”
Correction: This post originally inaccurately stated that Reddit also made advertising revenue from increased traffic to the site. Reddit actually sells its display advertising in advance, so the photos didn’t affect this particular revenue stream. The story has been corrected.