Gawker, the news and media site, has exposed an anonymous Reddit user’s real identity, leading to an Internet controversy that has generated accusations of censorship, racism, anti-Semitism, and child pornography.
First, some context: You may not have heard of it, but Reddit is one of the most popular websites in the world, with billions of pageviews each month. It is structured like a bulletin board, recalling the early days of the Internet where Usenet reigned supreme. It is part of the same company as Conde Nast, the publisher of The New Yorker. President Obama recently gave a question-and-answer interview by Reddit users on one of the site’s subforums.
What makes Reddit particularly unique is its free-wheeling approach to forums. Very little control is in place, and so while there are tons of areas of the website that that are useful and interesting, focusing on politics, news, religion, and so forth, there is also an underbelly where content that is racist, sexist, or quasi pornographic can be found.
Reddit has very few employees, and relies on a large number of trusted users who moderate forums, including the less savory forums. These moderators go by usernames or “handles”.
One such user was ViolentAcrez, who posted and moderated some of the most unsavory stuff on the site. Before Friday, I had never heard of ViolentAcrez and you probably didn’t know who he was either. But thousands of Reddit users did, where he was notorious and popular. But his real identity was unknown to almost everyone, until Gawker reporter Adrien Chen decided to “out” him.
That article has a much more detailed explanation about the whole Reddit phenomenon.
I don’t really care about the supposed free speech issues. It seems that if you post anonymously on the Internet, one of the inherent dangers is that you’ll be uncovered and exposed. Such is life.
But there has been surprisingly little discussion about the criminal acts that ViolentAcrez – Michael Brutsch, who is a computer programmer at a PayDay lender in Arlington, Texas – may have committed.
As Adrien Chen writes in his article:
The Violentacrez clan seems to have walked out of a Todd Solondz movie, and a significant part of Violentacrez’s mythos on Reddit comes from the details he’s shared about his family. In 2010, Violentacrez hosted a legendary “Ask Me Anything” thread”—the same Q & A feature Barack Obama took part in last month. He was asked what was the creepiest thing he’d done “IRL” and delighted readers with a tale ripped out of Penthouse letters. “That’d be a tough call,” Violentacrez wrote, “Perhaps oral sex with my 19-year-old stepdaughter.” It was completely consensual, he claimed in the post, and went on to brag about how awesome it had been in graphic detail.
I don’t practice criminal law in Texas, but in North Carolina had the woman been under the age of 18 at the time of the act, it would’ve constituted a Class G felony (Sex Offense by a Substitute Parent), punishable by up to 98 months in prison under the new Reportable Sex Offenses Chart.
I haven’t read – and don’t care to read – all of ViolentAcrez’s posts to Reddit, but it’s safe to say that conduct revealed on such sites may in fact turn out to be illegal (or in this case close to illegal).
The mere admission of conduct would not be enough to convict someone since that would constitute a corpus delicti issue, but the admission plus any corroboration would.
UPDATE: Jezebel has a good article on attempts to out and stop abusive behavior toward women on Reddit.