The Censorship Dispute That Toppled the Technology Subreddit

This is why you're not seeing any technology stories on Reddit's front page.

If you visited Reddit this morning, you probably didn’t see anything related to Google Fiber, or Netflix’s battle with cable companies, or the importance of encrypting the Internet. The administrators of one of the Internet’s most important websites just stripped /r/technology, arguably one of the most common ways people access tech news, of most of its importance. 

The actual stripping of the subreddit’s “default” status (meaning its posts automatically show up on the front page for people without Reddit accounts) came down to some moderator infighting and chaos that’s not really of note to most readers, but the reason behind that fighting certainly is. For the past several months, an auto-moderation bot in the subreddit has been automatically removing posts with any of the following words in the title

"Manning", "Snowden", "NSA", "N.S.A.", "National Security Agency", "spying", "spies", "Spy agency", "Spy agencies", "مارتيخ ̷̴̐خ", "White House", "Obama", "0bama", "CIA", "FBI", "GCHQ", "DEA", "FCC", "Congress", "Supreme Court", "State Department", "State Dept", "Pentagon", "Assange", "Wojciech", "Braszczok", "Front page", "Comcast", "Time Warner", "TimeWarner", "AT&T", "Obamacare", "davidreiss666", "maxwellhill", "anutensil", "Bitcoin", "bitcoins", "dogecoin", "MtGox", "US government", "U.S. government", "federal judge", "legal reason", "Homeland", "Senator", "Senate", "Congress", "Appeals Court", "US Court", "EU Court", "U.S. Court", "E.U. Court", "Net Neutrality", "Net-Neutrality", "Federal Court", "the Court", "Reddit", "flappy", "CEO", "Startup", "ACLU", "Condoleezza"

Given that bitcoin, NSA, government surveillance, Comcast/Time Warner, and (sadly) Flappy Bird, have been some of the biggest topics in technology in the last year, that didn’t sit well with too many people. Add that to the fact that “Tesla” was allegedly banned up until several weeks ago, and you had the makings of a civil war within the subreddit.

Basically, these words were censored because of overuse and the generally political nature of most of them. Whether such a broad ban of the words was necessary or warranted is a whole different discussion—posts with those words in the titles often were the most popular but were deemed by several moderators to not be "technology" related. Earlier this week, I asked the moderators of the subreddit why they thought the ban was necessary, but no one wanted to talk.

Rumblings of mass censorship within the subreddit started earlier this week, when that list of words was revealed by a user named creq, who studied the frequency of submissions with these words over the past several months. I messaged with creq earlier this week when it became clear that certain terms were being censored—here’s how he figured out what was being censored:

I knew /r/technology was censoring certain topics but always figured the moderators themselves were doing it. That changed not too long ago though when there was an indecent involving agentlame, a mod of /r/technology responsible for PR, when he lost his cool and banned a user who discovered that the word ‘Tesla’ had been banned from being posted to /r/technology. Here is a link to all that. During all that fallout I discovered that there was indeed a list of filtered words (much like /r/news's list of banned domains). I already knew at the time some of the words that were on the list, but didn't take the time to look further into it. Yesterday though someone else who knew about the filtered words list posted a link concerning Comcast merging with Time Warner. To get it by the filter he had to misspell Comcast. At that point I just got fed up with it because the Comcast merger is tech news and decided I was going to try to find as many filtered words as I could. This involved sitting down for several hours and searching for keywords I figured were banned. Most of them are either things people always say bad things about or organizations who say bad things about the other keywords. This technique worked much better than I expected it would. By searching for each word and then sorting the results by newest first I did that I discovered that around 7 months ago many of these words almost stopped appearing all together.”

And here's how submissions with "NSA" in the title did before and after the autoban was implemented:

This chart was made by Redditor SamSlate  

Eventually, the subreddit drama became so much that the administrators of Reddit decided they had to intervene. A Reddit administrator sent this message to the moderators of the technology subreddit:

So, what does this mean and why should you care? For one, it means that, unless you specifically subscribe to the technology subreddit, you’re not going to see tech news on Reddit anymore, unless you specifically seek it out. /r/technology is (or was) one of the most important sections of Reddit, but it’s unlikely to stay that way. Consider that, last month, Reddit had nearly 115 million unique visitors—only a fraction of those actually logged in. After /r/politics suffered a similar fate, its readership plummeted, and it has never recovered. The same is likely to happen for /r/technology. It’s also proof that, on a site that values transparency and free speech more than perhaps anywhere else, there’s censorship going on. 

It’s not all bad news, however—this may give smaller subreddits the chance to poach some readers. If you’re into techy stuff, consider checking out /r/tech, /r/futurology, /r/privacy, and /r/realtech