Reddit Takes Censorship Into Its Own Hands with New Blocking Policy

By Andrew James , written on June 18, 2012

From The News Desk

Last week, Reddit announced that it would start blocking URLs that it found to be gaming its voting system, or spamming its site with links. The company has created a private list of domains Reddit will actively block for an unspecified amount of time – although they do claim that it’s only temporary. The self-proclaimed "front page of the Internet" will reject any post that includes a URL to one of the blocked sites.

And it's not just minor sites either: Business Week, The Atlantic, and Science Daily all are affected by the blockade. And the list is actively growing on the subreddit /r/BannedDomains, and actively gaining detractors within their own community for the lack of interaction.

So Reddit blocks any media site whose writers post their own content and ask co-workers or friends for votes. Does that include individual bloggers who ask friends for upvotes regularly?

Most news organizations wouldn't have the time or resources to waste regularly sending its staff to Reddit for upvotes, meaning the average post may only garner a maximum of a couple dozen or so in-house votes. That's nowhere near enough to make a significant impact on Reddit – let alone reaching the frontpage – and probably not much different from what a relatively modest blogger could acquire from friends on Facebook or Twitter.

So when do the warning bells go off at Reddit, and who decides their sensitivity? At present it's seemingly decided by a small group of top level Redditors without input from the community, leaving it ripe for personal bias to influence banishment of an entire domain. And as one redditor points out, there's nothing in place to stop sites from using the ban to block a competitor, since it’s the entire domain, not the user, that suffers the consequences. As well, who determines if it’s “good” content, not worth banning. As another redditor points out here.

While Reddit is well within its rights to ensure that it isn't used as an ad platform for media companies, the community that stands so strongly for freedom of speech seems to have taken a risky step toward self-censorship. For a site that's so against censorship, Reddit's approach isn't so different from China's Great Firewall – deciding what's best for the community, whether the community likes it or not.

In China, censorship started out with the three Ts: Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan were the basics for getting blocked in China. But it's now ballooned well beyond that, because a group of censors independently block whatever they deem to be not right for the community.

Working for a publication in Shanghai for a year, I learned firsthand about the ridiculousness of censorship without community involvement. We had serious articles blocked hours before going to print because the censor, a middle aged man sitting in a windowless room, said "no." There was no questioning it and usually no reason given. (One article that stands out is an article about erectile dysfunction, which pointed sufferers to specialized clinics in Shanghai and was written earnestly by an American doctor. The article was blocked for no reason, leaving staff to speculate.)

Reddit frequently takes up initiatives to have its own voice heard across the Internet. The site is known for en masse gaming of polls and has used its weight to affect change. So it seems likely to stir some conflict by choosing to ban sites without consenting its community, especially given that Reddit is a site known for social sharing.

[Image Credit: kick_start Flickr]