Social media platform Tumblr has announced a ban on so-called “adult content,” a move made, it seems, in reaction to Tumblr’s app being removed from the Apple app store. But while making the app more available is in theory good for Tumblr users, in practice what’s about to happen is mass censorship of communities that have made Tumblr a positive experience for so many people in the first place.
On December 3, Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio posted a lengthy missive about a new policy, titled, apparently unironically, “A better, more positive Tumblr.” Instead of laying out a vision that is better and positive, D’Onofrio’s post lays bare the problems with the ban on so-called “adult content.” First of all, the policy is confusing and broad, leaving users in the lurch about what they can and can’t do on Tumblr. Second, according to D’Onofrio, enforcement of the policy will be reliant on automated tools, the use of which is—and always has been—rife with problems. Third, the people who will end up punished aren’t pornbots or sex traffickers but already-marginalized groups who have built sex- and body-positive communities on Tumblr. And finally, all of these things come together to show just how many ways platforms and tech companies can get in between users and their freedom of expression.
In D’Onofrio’s post, he explains that “in order to continue to fulfill [Tumblr’s] promise and place in culture, especially as it evolves, we must change,” going on to say that as part of that evolution, “adult content” will no longer be allowed on the platform. He further explains:
“We recognize Tumblr is also a place to speak freely about topics like art, sex positivity, your relationships, your sexuality, and your personal journey. We want to make sure that we continue to foster this type of diversity of expression in the community, so our new policy strives to strike a balance.”
On the face of it, this is literally contradictory. Saying adult content is banned, but that “diversity of expression” related to all those listed topics isn't is impossible to parse for the average user. Tumblr’s FAQ “clarifying” the definition of adult content (that is, that which includes “photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts”) likewise compounds this problem.
The new policies rule out almost all forms of nudity. “Female-presenting nipples” in particular is a phrase that has come under ridicule, because, among other things, it polices bodies for what they look like, based on a specific conception of gender, and a body part that only some cultures—but certainly not all!—prohibit showing in public.
On the other hand, the very next question has Tumblr claiming that “female-presenting nipples” can be shown in some contexts, that written erotica, “political” nudity, and “art” are permitted. These are all subjective categories that leave a lot of people on uncertain ground. Just look at Facebook, which has similar rules regarding nudity. In the past few years, we’ve seen Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue, a famous illustration of a woman licking an ice cream cone, a classic French painting, and a 16th-century statue of the Roman god Neptune taken down by Facebook’s content moderators under the restrictive policy.
Tumblr has also decided that the way to make these subjective calls about what is “art” and what is “adult content” is by using automated tools. D’Onofrio basically admits that these tools don’t work properly, saying in his post that “We’re relying on automated tools to identify adult content and humans to help train and keep our systems in check. We know there will be mistakes”.
That is an understatement. Filters don’t work. We’ve seen this in the copyright context many times. For example, YouTube’s Content ID system works by checking newly uploaded material against a database of copyrighted material and notifying copyright holders if there’s a match. And it resulted in five copyright claims being filed against a video of white noise. Five people claimed they literally owned exclusive rights to static.
And that’s just when it comes to checking for copyrighted material. It’s rather brazen of Tumblr to suggest it has the ability to develop and train a program to determine if something is porn; after all, there is literally a famous Supreme Court quote about the difficulty of defining obscenity! And so far, as any informed observer would have predicted, Tumblr’s system is failing miserably. Among the items flagged are a picture of Pomeranian puppies, selfies of fully-clothed individuals, images of raw chicken, and much much more. And, despite D’Onofrio’s statement that art, discussion of sexuality, and politics wouldn’t violate the terms, all of those categories have been hit.
When we look to groups outside the dominant culture, the problem is especially pernicious. Already, an image of a video game character on a pride flag, a selfie with the word “lesbian,” and someone talking about a family death due to AIDS have all been flagged. Tumblr may think it’s creating a “better” community, but it’s destroying what made it great in the first place.
In his post, D’Onofrio defends the policy by saying that the bottom line is that “there are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content.” Indeed, the Internet is full of porn, the overwhelming majority of which caters to heterosexual men. But on Tumblr, people created sex-positive spaces on Tumblr that don’t exist elsewhere. People created portfolios of their work, all of it, on the platform. Those spaces are going to vanish.
A business decision?
Three paragraphs into his better, more positive manifesto, D’Onofrio states “posting anything that is harmful to minors, including child pornography, is abhorrent and has no place in our community. We’ve always had and always will have a zero tolerance policy for this type of content” and asks that no one confuse that with this new policy. Child exploitation imagery is both vile and illegal, and the fact that Tumblr apparently wasn’t eliminating it shows that it needed to hire people to enforce its existing policy, not outsource the job to algorithms. So why create this new, wholesale ban?
It’s impossible to divorce the new policy from the fact that, just a month prior to the announcement, Tumblr disappeared from the Apple App Store. And that, when asked about it, a Tumblr spokesperson responded with nearly the same words that D’Onofrio also used in his post.
Apple’s App Store has long acted as censor and gatekeeper to the Internet. In 2010, Steve Jobs once said that the iPad offered “freedom from porn” and that there was a “moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone.” Apple has consistently enforced draconian rules for app developers, exerting control over how its users get to experience the Internet. The company’s rules have even had the effect of silencing the press, as in 2010 when a large-scale removal of apps containing nudity impacted several mainstream German news publications.
We don’t know if Apple is the sole reason for these new rules. Tumblr also got banned this year in Indonesia because of pornography, for example, and may just want to make itself as non-controversial as possible. And it’s notable that Tumblr’s new policy is largely in line with that of peers Facebook, Microsoft, and YouTube, all of which heavily restrict so-called “adult content.”
The end result, though, is that companies and governments are changing how users get to express themselves on the Internet. The multi-billion dollar corporate porn industry won’t go away; rather, what will are places for people to talk frankly, openly, and safely about sex and sexuality. Groups that are pushed out of mainstream discussions or find themselves attacked in mainstream spaces are once again losing their voices.