Don’t take Silicon Valley’s ‘free speech’ ideals at face value, Ellen Pao says

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As the editor of her college’s daily student paper, Ellen Pao was “one of those people” who ardently defended free speech online. But after a stint as interim CEO of Reddit from 2014 to 2015, her opinion is more nuanced.

“This idea of ‘free speech’ is used to protect harassing behavior and harassing messages, and that, I think, is actually counter to the goals of free speech,” Pao said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher.

“The goals of free speech are, ‘You have this platform where people share ideas and you have conversations and you convince each other,’” Pao added. “And what you end up with is a bunch of really loud, high-populated groups pushing off other people, the marginalized voices that free speech is supposed to enable and protect.”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, Pao said ex-Googler James Damore’s now-infamous memo, which, among other things, argued that women were biologically predisposed to be worse engineers than men, is a “pretty easy case,” because it’s about what you can say at work, not what you can say in general. Google fired Damore for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

But more broadly, she said that platforms should much more clearly spell out rules about what is and is not allowed, lest they let their worst users take control.

“There was a period of time [at Reddit], before we got rid of the unauthorized nude pictures, the whole site was people looking for naked pictures of celebrities,” Pao said. “We could not get anything else in, because the demand was so high and we couldn’t service the actual, real conversations. Is that what you want your site to be? If you’re the only site that allows it, then that is what you’re going to be, and you don’t have any good conversations then.”

Social media platforms already make plenty of similar decisions, she noted, about what is spam, what is terrorism and when is it acceptable to share a photo of a human breast. (“And they’re not particularly good at it, from what I’ve seen.”) The issue is that enforcing more rules means hiring more people and paying them “a shit-ton of money.”

“It is so much cheaper not to do it,” Pao said. “‘Free speech’ is easy, it’s free, you just let it go! Whatever happens, happens! That’s where Reddit got where it is today. It was a super-small organization; it’s easier just to say, ‘We allow whatever.’”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode, answers the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • And Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, including the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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