Reddit, the social networking and news site, has had a tumultuous week in Russia. In that small time frame the online billboard was banned, unbanned and introduced self-censorship. In opposition to a Reddit post, in Russian, on how to grow psilocybin (magic) mushrooms, Moscow banned the site for several days, saying promoting criminal activity, such as growing illegal drugs, violated local Russian laws. After the Kremlin’s media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, was able to contact Reddit’s administrators, the site was promptly unbanned.
But the Reddit community that had hosted the page (entitled “Minimal and reliable methods for growing psilocybe”), r/rudrugs, is now not accessible in Russia. In a parallel move, the community r/WatchPeopleDie is now inaccessible to users in Germany. This comes after Germany threatened a total ban if the community was not taken down.
A lively discussion has since grown over Reddit’s use of self-censorship in certain countries, with critics arguing such governance goes against the principles of Reddit, which has been an ardent defender of free speech. In response to the criticism, Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman said he and Alexis Ohanian did not create the site, in 2005, as “a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen: These are very complicated issues, and we are putting a lot of thought into it”.
Huffman added that most of Reddit’s content “comes from wonderful, creative, funny, smart and silly communities”, but that “there is also a dark side, communities whose purpose is reprehensible”. Reddit has come under fire before, for hosting communities that endorsed violence against women and racism. Those were banned last year.
Stoking further resentment among those in the Reddit community who believe self-censorship goes against freedom of expression, its administrators said they will consider more requests to ban content in certain countries, if they receive “a valid request”.
For certain Russia-watchers, the Reddit dispute can be seen as part of an ongoing campaign organized by Moscow to limit certain online activities, as part of a wider, ongoing clampdown on freedom of expression. Last year, a new law tightened the freedom of bloggers in Russia, dictating that sites with audiences of 3,000 or more must register with the authorities.