Does Reddit have an obligation to provide user information to law enforcement?

Posted by Sydney Price

Kill Key

Photo by Jeff Keyzer on Flicker via Creative Commons.

Reddit, the popular social media and aggregated content discussion forum, covers a staggering variety of topics – including illegal ones.

A recent WIRED article revealed that a representative from the Baltimore Department of Homeland Security requested Reddit to disclose information about five users who are under investigation for involvement with Evolution, an online black market website.

Evolution trafficked drugs, weapons and financial information. The website garnered attention when it suddenly shut down, taking millions of dollars in bitcoins with it and arousing suspicion of foul play.

On Reddit, these users (and many others) have been openly and publicly discussing black market dealings. Reddit has not yet answered whether they will or will not comply with the government’s request for information, but the website lists the following:

“We regularly get requests from governments and law enforcement agencies for private information about our users or to take down content or subreddits; we occasionally get requests from individuals. These requests are usually legitimate, and we push back on any that we view as overbroad or unnecessarily invasive of privacy. We want you to see what’s going on behind the scenes as much as possible, so we’re releasing annual transparency reports.”

In another section of Reddit do’s and don’ts, the first item on the “don’t” list is simply “[Don’t] engage in illegal activity.”

Personally, I think Reddit should provide the information the government requested, since users were blatantly talking about the details of criminal activity on a public forum. (ie. probable cause) However, should social media sites be responsible for users who choose to use their sites for such purposes? Where do you draw the line between individual privacy and public safety?

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7 responses to “Does Reddit have an obligation to provide user information to law enforcement?

  1. I think what matters most is what information they asked Reddit to give them. If it’s any private information about the users, like their name and residence, that’s way too far. And unless there is some clause in their privacy agreement saying that if they engage in illegal activities they give up their right to privacy, I don’t think they should comply at all. If they just want links to those users public posts for evidence, then I don’t see a problem though.

    • For some reason word press always logs me into my old account from jr high. This comment was from me, Brita Olmstead.

  2. It’s not Reddit’s fault that their users are posting these things, but it is their responsibility to screen/administer these posts. They have a set of guidelines, and the first rule is literally “Don’t engage in illegal activity.” They have to hold their users to that rule. Just because it’s posted somewhere in the fine print doesn’t mean that all users are going to follow it. Just like if someone posts something inappropriate on Facebook or Instagram, the site removes the information and sometimes bans the users. It’s Reddit’s turn to step up and do the same, OR screen posts for certain trigger words/terms/links before allowing to post.

  3. I agree with Brita that Reddit should not provide private information such as names and residence. I don’t know much about Reddit or their rules, but I would think they would have something that says they give up their right to privacy if they break Reddit’s rules. For Reddit to protect people who are using their site for illegal activity seems absurd to me, but they also shouldn’t just give out all their information to the government either. It’s a tricky situation that Reddit could have avoided had they had something in their terms and conditions that states that users lose their right to privacy if Reddit’s rules are being broken.

  4. I don’t have a lot of experience with Reddit, but don’t a lot of users post about smoking pot or other minor illegal things? If Reddit complies to the government with this, will they have to “rat out” other users that claim they’re doing other illegal things? I don’t know if Reddit has done this or not yet, but I think they should definitely kick the users off of their site, and then consider giving the government information. From what I know, they never stated in their terms of use that if you do participate in illegal activity, Reddit will give the government information. i think it’s just something they didn’t foresee happening.

  5. Some of you were wondering what information exactly the government was requesting. As per the WIRED article:
    “…the DHS seeks information that includes the names, IP addresses, dates and times of site visits as well as other data that Reddit likely doesn’t possess, including the users’ phone numbers and financial data.”

    In addition, you can view Reddit’s privacy policy in more detail here:
    http://www.reddit.com/help/privacypolicy
    Reddit stores data for 90 days. So as the article said, it is unclear as to whether or not Reddit still has the information the DHS wants. It will be interesting to see how this plays out and how Reddit handles the situation.

    I agree with Beth in that Reddit may not have foreseen something like this happening. When a social media site is created, the founders try to anticipate issues that may arise, but it is impossible to cover every potential problem or predict how members will choose to use the site.

  6. (Also, just to make clear: The probe into these Reddit users was less about what they were posting on Reddit specifically and more about their supposed involvement with Evolution. Reddit just happened to be a platform on which the DHS found evidence of these individuals.)

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