WASHINGTON (AP) — If you’ve hopped onto Reddit this week to scroll through your favorite forums, you may have come across “private” or “restricted” messages. That’s because Thousands of subreddits have chosen to go dark in an ongoing protest against the company’s plan to charge certain third-party developers for access to the site’s data.
But Reddit CEO Steve Huffman told The Associated Press that he’s not backing down.
“Protest and dissent are important,” Huffman said. “The problem with that is that it’s not going to change anything because we made a business decision that we’re not negotiating.”
Protest organizers say Reddit’s new policy threatens to end key methods of historically customizing the platform using an API, or application programming interface, that allows computer programs to talk to each other. Third-party developers rely on API data to build their apps, which provide access to features not available in the official Reddit app, particularly for content moderation and accessibility help.
But Reddit says supporting these third-party developers is too expensive and that the new policy is necessary to become a self-sustaining company.
Reddit has more than 100,000 active subreddits and nearly 9,000 of those are down this week. While some reverted to their public settings after 48 hours, others said they plan to remain private until Reddit complies with their demands. That includes the reduction in fees for third-party developers, due to take effect on July 1, to keep popular apps from shutting down.
According to a, more than 4,000 subreddits were still involved in the lockdown as of Friday — including communities with tens of millions of subscribers like r/music and r/videos tracker and live twitch stream of the boycott.
Reddit notes that the vast majority of subreddit communities are still active. And while Huffman stresses that he respects users’ right to protest, he also says the subreddits currently participating in the lockdown “will not remain offline indefinitely” — even if that means finding new moderators must.
The company’s response to the blackout has further fueled outrage among protest organizers, who accuse Reddit of attempting to remove moderators — or “mods” — from subreddits protesting this week. Subreddit “mods” are volunteers who often use tools outside of the official app to keep their forums free of spam and hateful content, for example, and many of them are upset with Reddit’s new fees.
“A lot of what is going on here is … (Reddit) destroying user goodwill. And it’s a lot more expensive than trying to collaborate,” said Omar, a subreddit moderator who participated in this week’s blackout and asked not to be given his full name due to security concerns about his subreddit’s moderation.
Reddit denies it’s removing moderators over protests, claiming it’s merely enforcing its code of conduct.
“When mods leave a community, we find new mods. When mods keep private a large community of people who want to get involved, we find new mods that want to revitalize them,” the company said in an email. “The rules that allow us to do this are not new and were not designed to limit protests.”
Most people who visit Reddit probably don’t think about APIs, but access to these third-party resources is crucial for moderators to get their jobs done, experts point out.
“Reddit is built on volunteer moderation work, including the creation and maintenance of many tools,” Sarah Gilbert, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University and research manager of the Citizens and Technology Lab, said in a statement. “Without Reddit’s volunteer moderators, the site could likely see less helpful content and more spam, misinformation, and hate.”
Reddit has dismissed some of these concerns, stating that 93% of moderator actions are currently performed through desktop and native Reddit apps.
Huffman and Reddit’s management also notes that the new fees only apply to eligible third-party apps that require high usage caps. According to metrics released by the company on Thursday, 98% of apps will continue to have free access to the data API as long as they’re not monetized and stay below Reddit’s data usage threshold.
The company has also promised that moderator tools and bots will continue to have free access to the data API, and has made deals with some non-commercial accessibility-focused apps to exempt them from new fees.
Still, some moderators say they’re relying on popular apps being shut down because of the new cost. Apollo And Reddit is funFor example, they have already announced plans to close at the end of June. Apollo developer Christian Selig estimated the fees at about $20 million a year.
Huffman has dismissed that estimate, and Reddit has argued that upcoming fees for heavily used third-party apps — which stand at 24 cents for 1,000 API calls — are reasonable.
With more than 500 million monthly active users worldwide, Reddit is one of the top sites on the web. It’s hard to predict how much money Reddit will save and make overall after the new fees are introduced. However, Huffman says the “pure infrastructure cost” of supporting these apps costs Reddit about $10 million each year.
“We can’t subsidize other people’s businesses,” Huffman said. “We didn’t ban third-party apps — we said, ‘You have to cover your costs.'”
Reddit’s changes to its API coincide with the San Francisco-based company’s reported plans to go public later this year. While Huffman couldn’t comment directly on the rumored IPO, he did stress that Reddit needs to be self-sustaining.
“I think every company has an obligation to eventually become profitable — for our employees’ shareholders, for our investors’ shareholders, and, one day as a public company, hopefully for our user shareholders, too,” said Huffman, who co-founded the site in 2005.
Reddit first filed for an IPO in 2021, but paused its plans due to a slump in tech stocks. With the possibility of a renewed IPO for the second half of 2023, financial experts speculate that the company may be trying to present investors with higher earnings and profitability.
“I suspect that leading up to the IPO, they feel a lot of pressure to show that they can generate revenue from other sources,” Luke Stein, a finance professor at Babson College, told The Associated Press, noting that monetization of APIs could create another opportunity for revenue streams instead of relying on advertising and new users like Reddit has done in the past.
Experts also noted the importance of Reddit demonstrating a way to charge AI companies that have used Reddit data in the past for free to develop large-scale and for-profit AI models.
Still, the IPO is uncertain and the API changes could also have consequences.
“If they can actually push through the changes, they could increase their revenue,” said James Angel, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “On the other hand, if they upset their best users, especially if those users decide to switch platforms, it could cause problems.”