Tumblr banning porn πŸ€¦β€β™‚οΈ

Saturday, December 8, 2018 :: Tagged under: culture essay. ⏰ 5 minutes.

The song for this post is a favorite example of "obscene content," Pope Song, by Tim Minchin.

Tumblr is killing porn on their platform. There's a lot to unpack here.

y tho?

Tumblr bans porn, but not white supremacy, example 1. Tumblr bans porn, but not white supremacy, example 2. Tumblr bans porn, but not white supremacy, example 3.

nOw tHe cHIlDreN aRE SAfe. (via)

It's usually attributed to one immediate and obvious reason, one less obvious reason, and one backgroud reason:

Immediate and obvious: Apple removed Tumblr from the App Store in late November citing reasons of finding child porn. Obviously there isn't any of this programmed in the app, and any sufficiently popular platform with user-generated content will display abhorrent or illegal content if you know where to look (even if not overtly β€” young families have photos of their children stolen from Instagram and re-posted for pedophiles).

So the most common reason people say Tumblr is doing this is "well, they don't want this to happen again," since it's disastrous to have your app pulled from the store.

Less talked about, but probably the bigger reason: FOSTA and SESTA. They're a big part of this story I'll elaborate on later, but the short answer is that most content law for platforms doesn't penalize those platforms immediately for what's on it. If, say, a copyrighted video is on YouTube, or if I upload my Facebook profile picture to Super Mario, it doesn't mean YouTube or Facebook is immediately liable to the owners of that content for these infractions: they're allowed some time to get it taken down on the copyright owner's request.

FOSTA and SESTA are different: if something looks like it might be used in selling sex or sexual services, the platforms face massive fines without a chance to "fix it." So Tumblr was probably looking at their porn content and thinking "well, this is going to be a problem and we just got pulled from the App Store, let's just do this now anyways."

The final background reason: Tumblr is a bit of a headless chicken, with regards to principles. Tech companies tend to be extremely deferential to founders, even after an acquisition, and those founders tend to be highly principled on what they want their platform to look like (the principles are usually a White-centered libertarian-flavored mishmash of Free Speech concepts I find reductive, but they are consistent, and applied!).

Tumblr's founder is pretty long gone; the platform languished a bit at Yahoo! for years, and is now under… AOL and Verizon. Leadership-wise, I doubt the person running it has a whole lot of power per founder agreements, nor willing to put it all down for their baby the way other companies often do.

End of older internet ideals.

One thing to keep in mind is how this is, bit-by-bit, the fun and weird hobbyist web many of us grew up with dying and being replaced by corporate-owned, centralized web. This article by Katie Notopolous does a great job summarizing this in the Tumblr case, but like The Hays Code did to movies for a few decades, social pressures and capitalism have, for the past decade, been making much of the old web's free expression die down.

I mention these links in a lot of blog posts, but they still apply here:

Tumblr could have given 90 days notice. They could have provided an export tool. They didn't do either of these things, just the axe.

Hey, did I mention we lost Net Neutrality this year? We'll soon buy internet like we buy cable packages, which consumers love. We also lost a browser engine this week, meaning we have Apple on WebKit with ~5 percent of desktop market share, Firefox on Gecko/Servo with ~9%, and soon, everyone else on Blink.

We lost Geocities, we lost Vine. And most of the emerging markets for tech with billions of users literally only connect through Facebook or are already under totalitarian, heavily-monitored and censored tech which our tech company leadership is eager to play along with.

If you want to see what the future of tech looks like, I love this look at radio when it was a new technology and the various parallels with internet.

Progress isn't linear: people will suffer and die

Per the alt-text in this xkcd, there's a fatigue when someone on the Internet says "this will kill people." Fights for clicks mean that a lot of issues get escalated as being of critical importance, and it can be depressing to remember that there's so much suffering and trouble out there in this big world. Try to deactivate that part of your brain if you can, and re-engage empathy when I say this, and FOSTA/SESTA more generally, is killing many people in very vulnerable communities.

Having platforms for empowered people to sell sex, acquire clients, and vet them prevents sex workers from being under the thumb of pimps and lessens the chance they find themselves in dangerous situations. When you remove the ability to do this, you put more people in places where they're going to get killed.

Here's a useful fact: on average, when Craigslist opened "erotic services" in a city, the female homicide rate went down 17 percent. Not "murders against sex workers," that's the entire female homicide rate. You can lower your murder rate against women down 17% with this one weird trick!

(and that's just Craigslist: imagine if you had various platforms competing to give them great features? Imagine if you didn't criminalize the sex workers? Imagine if cops weren't frequently awful to sex workers?)

This shit has been researched and every sex worker with a platform has used it to announce the danger of removing these platforms. I know Tumblr was such a platform for tens to hundreds of thousands of such workers, and this makes their situations much more dangerous.

Some of the more accessible explainers on FOSTA/SESTA are here on Vox, and here's a decent podcast episode.

Capitalism

At the same time: if you're the corporate, rules-abiding type of person who's now in charge of running Tumblr (or making other corporate decisions), in light of all the above, what else do you do? Actually fight it? It's unlikely, most companies with a lot to lose go right along with this kind of thing. Facebook is now tightening its policies of queer expression.

If a mayor of a town was confronted with a law that said any car or bicycle accident will mean massive fines for the city, and the mayor and all their friends have helicopters, what does the mayor do? Ban cars and bicycles!

I started this writing section expecting to be sympathetic to the leadership at Tumblr, because I do, on some level, wonder "what else can they do?" if you have a pornbot problem that's beyond your means to control. But then I remember that I wasn't considering decisions outside of those that validate the status quo.

Most of us often say "there are no good solutions to these problems" when there, in fact, are! The Good Solutions, however, require us to kick out old assumptions. So if I'm working with the framework that a solution has to be low-cost, low-risk, and safe for Verizon, then yeah, there's not much there.

But could Tumblr leadership collaborate with other tech boards to push against FOSTA/SESTA? Could they raise awareness for what the laws are doing and who they're killing? Can they start a foundation or initiative to build tools that would root out and differentiate nonconsensual sex work from consensual sex work on platforms like these? Could they collaborate with working sex workers on solutions and share the findings?

They could do any of these things! But they won't, like other tech platforms won't, because it's hard and they get paid either way. πŸ€·β€β™‚οΈ


(to be fair: I agree there's a non-zero amount of trafficking happening on Tumblr (and Facebook, and WhatsApp, and Instagram I'd bet: they have billions of users, after all). And any amount is terrifying, and too much. I just don't see evidence that these measures are reducing trafficking in any meaningful way, whereas I do see tons of compelling evidence that it's killing people, disproportionately women, people of color, and queer populations).

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you πŸ˜„