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Reddit sued over allegations of inaction over child sex abuse images

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According to a report from The Verge, an anonymous woman is suing Reddit – one of the world’s most popular platforms for user-generated content – for allegedly taking insufficient action against users posting sexual images taken when she was 16.

The plaintiff claims that Reddit’s alleged inaction violates FOSTA-SESTA: a somewhat controversial 2018 amendment to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 provides information service providers with immunity for content posted on their platforms; the amendment removes immunity for content which could be for the purposes of facilitating sex trafficking.

In a Jane Doe lawsuit [PDF] that could put the scope of FOSTA-SESTA to the test, a woman is suing Reddit for allegedly permitting a former abusive partner to post sexual images and video of her taken without her consent when she was 16 years old.

She claims that: “Reddit knowingly benefits from lax enforcement of its content policies, including for child pornography.”

The plaintiff had reached out to moderators but been told that she would need to wait “several days” before content was removed; she alleges she had very little success obtaining a permanent ban. The lawsuit says that she has been forced for several years to spend hours looking through 36 “of [the] darkest and most disturbing subreddits” to locate and report the material as it was reposted. She said that the former partner continued to post and created a new account when his old account was banned.

Reddit has a largely community-driven moderation model, with subreddits moderated by volunteers and Reddit employees only intervening to block content and subreddits under extreme provocation, such as death threats following a terrorist incident.

According to the lawsuit, Reddit violated FOSTA-SESTA by placing ads which made the content a “commercial sex act” and being aware the content existed on its servers while tolerating it. It is uncertain whether courts will agree that this qualifies as sex trafficking under the amendment.

The lawsuit is pursuing class action status to include any other underage revenge porn victims who have had explicit material posted on Reddit without their consent. Reddit banned sexualised images of children in 2012.

Reddit said in a statement to The Verge that it does not tolerate child sexual abuse content. It said that this sort of content has “no place” on its platform.

“We actively maintain policies and procedures that don’t just follow the law, but go above and beyond it. We deploy both automated tools and human intelligence to proactively detect and prevent the dissemination of [child sex abuse] material. When we find such material, we purge it and permanently ban the user from accessing Reddit. We also take the steps required under law to report the relevant user(s) and preserve any necessary user data.”

FOSTA-SESTA has been criticised by free speech advocates as potentially implicating any online service as a facilitator of sex trafficking due to participation being loosely defined as “knowing conduct… by any means”. It has also been criticised by sex workers for conflating consensual sex work with sex trafficking, allegedly leading to the removal of comparatively safe and inexpensive platforms they use to communicate with clients.

The challenge of cracking down on child sex abuse conducted online – such as through grooming on encrypted messaging apps and sharing of user-generated child sex abuse imagery – has been used as one of the principle arguments against default use of the strongest security and privacy provisions, such as end-to-end encryption.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel said last week that an expansion of end-to-end encryption across Facebook’s messaging apps would jeopardise work done by law enforcement to prevent sharing of child abuse images. The NSPCC has argued that there is now an “either/or” argument between adult privacy and child safety and that Facebook’s expansion alone could cause 70 per cent of global child abuse reports to be lost.

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