• Marcel Mensah | Eat More Spiders

Tumblr Adult Content Bans & How Content Restrictions Impact Creators


(Photo Illustration by Thiago Prudencio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Image)


What is the "Tumblr Porn Ban"


In November of 2018, Tumblr was removed from the Apple App Store for reports of users posting and sharing child pornography to the app. In December of 2018, Tumblr started enforcing stricter content restrictions, and shortly after on December 17th, Tumblr banned all adult content from its platform - a decision that resulted in a mass migration of users from the app and a lot of backlash.


This crackdown of illegal pornographic material, in part follows the “PornHub Crackdown” of late 2018 following a landmark investigative piece by Nicholas Kristoff (New York Times) titled; “The Children of Pornhub”. In the piece Kristoff exposed the sheer amount of exploitation, underage and assault content published to the platform every year and how it permanently damaged the lives of those affected.


This piece helped motivate widespread change, pressuring large companies and service providers into addressing the illegal content being published to their websites - seemingly under their noses. What followed was a domino effect of artists, creators, writers and micro-community censorship due to poor execution of content moderation.



Banning Adult Content On Tumblr


Tumblr, a communal blogging platform that let anyone curate and publish in their own corner of the internet - was a microcosm of niche communities. While discussing the NSFW content on the app and the ban’s effect on creators - it’s important to know Tumblr is not and was not a pornographic website. At the time 16.4% of accounts were reported as dedicated to adult content, meaning NSFW images & nudity only made up a fraction of what was posted to the platform.


In a (possibly overdue) push to curb illegal and exploitative content on its app - platforms like Tumblr, instituted sweeping bans on ALL adult content, rather than just the illegal content that was being published by certain users.


This decision was a double edged sword - while it accomplished it’s goal of wiping certain material off of the site, the ban also broadly eliminated NSFW content and communities, regardless of legality.


This had a staggering effect on the platforms ecosystems and usability for creators that made a living off of the work they published there.


Queer, sex positive and art communities began to feel erased following the ban on adult content as Tumblr, was essentially the only mainstream platform where you could curate and publish nsfw content freely. From illustration, to boudoir photography or erotic fan-fictions. Tumblr gave users a space away from their “irl” acquaintances to publish creative work and build subcultures around topics outside of the mainstream - including sex positivity.



The distinction between Tumblr and XXX sites.


What makes this important is - Tumblr provided a space for conversation and the curation of NSFW topics, as opposed to being solely consumption focused. Popular porn websites like Pornhub, XVideo etc. fall into the latter category. They are, some of the most visited sites on the internet but they don’t:

  • Provide space for conversations centered around sex positivity

  • Allow communities to congregate and grow

  • Give creators or Sex Workers a platform to discuss the nuance behind the industry

  • Create space for fandoms, artists, photographers, makers, kinks or genres that fall outside of the mainstream.

  • Build spaces for archiving, context, history or exploration of unpopular themes.

[From Mse Asia]: “Another imperative element to Tumblr's success was the ability to create a persona... Unlike Facebook, you could be completely anonymous on Tumblr if you wanted; there wasn't a need to share your work or connect with IRL friends. The anonymity allowed users to explore their sexuality — in fandom or otherwise — safely.”



Important factors in content moderation decisions.


CDA Section 230


There are a few important dates and pieces of legislation that must be taken into account when we look at content moderation in 2022 on.


In 1996, a landmark piece of legislation was passed called Section 230 Safe Harbor. This made “the providers of "interactive computer services" immune from liability under civil laws for the actions of their users if they publish objectionable content (such as defamatory and obscene content).” (Wiki)


This essentially means that internet service providers, applications, and online services could not be held responsible for what’s called “user generated content” and thus could not be held accountable by the courts “if the service was not directly involved in the offending content.”


This piece of legislation is often regarded as one of the internet's most valuable tools protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the internet (SRC)



FOSTA & SESTA


The next major pieces of legislation on this topic to look at are: FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Online) & SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) - US senate and house bills that were signed into law April 11, 2018.


These two bills make important amendments to Section 230, saying that the immunity services received from section 230, did not apply to the enforcement of federal or state sex trafficking. This also means website publishers would be responsible if third parties were found posting ads for prostitution — including consensual sex work — on their platforms.


Effective April 2018, websites and services could now be sued by civil or criminal law if the content on their site violated these laws. (National Coalition for Sexual Freedom)



The Problem with FOSTA / SESTA


These changes, taken at face value, were received positively by many in America as sex trafficking and child pornography have a long history of polluting the internet - but these bills were in no way perfect.


Because of the above legislation, companies were now faced with a tough decision - either moderate the age, content and consent of those publishing to their platforms, or risk criminal lawsuits that could shut their services down. While companies like tumblr would opt into stricter content moderation - often they found the task to be too difficult, and instead began banning a much broader threshold of what could be considered “adult content” - legal or not.


Opponents of the bill pointed to the fact that the FOSTA / SESTA bills didn’t actually do enough to concretely target sex trafficking or offenders, but it did open the door for censorship on websites, social media platforms and forum based applications.


In some ways, FOSTA made the identification of victims and exploitative situations much more difficult, as websites became less traceable since the sites offenders used were now self-censoring or shutting down.


FOSTA-SESTA also decreased sex workers’ financial security and stability by limiting their ability to advertise — all while increasing exposure to violence by taking down "bad-client" lists and Sex Worker community forums.


Immediately following SESTA’s passage on March 21, 2018, “numerous websites took action to censor or ban parts of their platforms in response — not because those parts of the sites actually were promoting ads for prostitutes, but because policing them against the outside possibility that they might was just too hard.” (VOX)


By making service providers partially responsible for the illegal content being circulated on their platforms, it forced them to reform how they operated. Ultimately, rather than overcome the difficult task of effective content moderation, companies began broadly banning legal content that may have put the company under scrutiny.

This decision would make the internet a much harsher place for artists and content creators who built their work and digital presences outside of the mainstream - especially NSFW creators.



The Playing field for NSFW content in 2022


Despite being 4 years ago, the sweeping bans on content that have affected artists and creators from all walks of life doesn’t seem to be improving anytime soon. In a recent piece Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic, which acquired Tumblr from Verizon in 2019 (and also owns WordPress.), published to his blog saying “The casually porn-friendly era of the early internet is currently impossible,”.

Expanding on a few of Matt’s points




“Credit card companies are anti-porn,”


Credit card and payment issuers have taken a firm stance against NSFW content, sex and pornography for many of the same reasons platforms like Instagram and Facebook have. Crypto-currency, touted as the next big leap in payment processing, in theory fills this gap, but realistically is nowhere near being a reliable or consistent solution.


This withdrawal from NSFW materials we’re seeing by payment processors like Visa and Mastercard began after PornHub was audited for featuring child, abuse and assault pornography on their site in 2018.


This didn’t necessarily come from a malicious place either. In 2021 Mastercard published a blog post to their site outlining the terms of their withdrawal saying:


“Today we’re taking an even more active stance against the potential for unauthorized and illegal adult content…The banks that connect merchants to our network will need to certify that the seller of adult content has effective controls in place to monitor, block and, where necessary, take down all illegal content.”


and to be fair, this stance is a fairly responsible one. The issue is then reflected back to the servicers who again, rather than implement effective and well developed moderation systems, would rather avoid the possibility of a misfire, and ban the content altogether. In other cases, such as in tumblr, relatively smaller companies simply don’t have the bandwidth to monitor the flow of content as well as they would have to.


Matt Mullenweg elaborates saying


“Tumblr has no way to go back and identify the featured persons or the legality of every piece of adult content that was shared on the platform and taken down in 2018, nor does it have the resources or expertise to do that for new uploads.”


But while these restrictions may seem to be in good faith, the real world impact is that consensual, legal creators were significantly hurt by payment processors deciding to pull from supporting these platforms.



App Stores are anti-porn:


Frankly, most companies are against porn, including app stores.


The Apple App Store, the second largest app store in the world (grossed 64 billion in profit in 2020) has a plethora of content restrictions in place on all applications that can be downloaded in the app store. This means that if Apple is against a certain type of content being featured in its store for whatever reason, apps like tumblr have to follow suit or risk getting banned from the app store altogether.


This could be devastating for a relatively smaller service like Tumblr who according to Matt Mullenweg, has a user base of about 102 million monthly visitors, of which 40% of their signups and 85% of monthly page views come from mobile devices.


He goes on to say:


“There are lots of new rules around verifying consent and age in adult content. The rise of smartphones also means that everyone has a camera that can capture pictures and video at any time.


Non-consensual sharing has grown exponentially and has been a huge problem on dedicated porn sites like PornHub – and governments have rightly been expanding laws and regulations to make sure everyone being shown in online adult content is of legal age and has consented to the material being shared…”


This means if creators want leniency, it may be time to lobby app stores into reframing what they deem appropriate for apps in their circle of influence - while also staying on top of illegal content that shouldn’t be published and shared.


Artists and Makers are still going to have it tough


Platforms like Tumblr and other places artists publish their work (including platforms like OnlyFans, which were made almost explicitly for sexual content) are going to have a tough time moving forward.


With the information that surfaced over the past half of a decade, bills and content restrictions - It’s extremely unlikely that we see an internet as friendly to NSFW content and sharing as we did pre-2016 and especially pre-2010. Artists will have to be creative when it comes to publishing their work - and will potentially have to self publish on their own services.


Even with tumblr “bringing back” porn, stated in an announcement in September 2022, we’re very unlikely to see the same freedom to share and congregate as we did in the past.



Moving Forward


We need to hold companies accountable for the harm they can potentially inflict. Today, In 2022 the scope and impact of the internet is unprecedented. The internet, like the telephone or the vehicle, is a tool that fundamentally changed how humans live and interact with one another. Because this tool can impact many people extremely quickly, we need to keep the major conglomerates running them accountable and responsible.


Creative expression has taken deep blows from content restrictions, algorithms, and global companies monopolizing the app “playing field”. Consenting adults should be able to create and share NSFW content between one another, artists should be able to draw what they want without getting blacklisted across applications, and people, should be able to talk about and explore topics tied to our humanity without being infantilized (sex, love, death, prejudice, beauty etc.)


What I'm trying to say is - we're watching a nuanced conversation unfold before us. Content restrictions are important for keeping people, children, and the vulnerable safe on the internet. But if done poorly content restrictions over-step and create environments that are devoid of nuance and hostile to everyday creators.


While the solutions may not be as black and white as we (or especially i) would like them to be, now is the time to support creators where we can.


Visit personal websites, read small blogs, go to trade and craft shows. The internet IS a huge contributor to the creativity space worldwide, but it’s not the ONLY way people can get together and share their work.


Thanks for reading.




 

References:

  1. https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/4/13/17172762/fosta-sesta-backpage-230-internet-freedom

  2. https://www.theverge.com/2018/11/20/18104366/tumblr-ios-app-child-pornography-removed-from-app-store

  3. https://www.eff.org/tossedout/tumblr-ban-adult-contenthttps://sea.mashable.com/life/19369/the-death-of-tumblr-porn-left-a-void-no-other-site-can-fill

  4. https://www.vice.com/en/article/epng3j/mastercard-now-requires-documented-consent-from-adult-sites

  5. https://www.mastercard.com/news/perspectives/2021/protecting-our-network-protecting-you-preventing-illegal-adult-content-on-our-network/

  6. https://photomatt.tumblr.com/post/696651266548465664/tumblr?_branch_match_id=1104846232491190593&_branch_referrer=H4sIAAAAAAAAA8soKSkottLXTyzRKynNTcop0kvOz9UvyMgvyc9NLCnRhwjqG5dnlVVkmhekVJUXAgDGQUnmMwAAAA%3D%3D

  7. https://photomatt.tumblr.com/post/696651266548465664/tumblr

  8. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/04/opinion/sunday/pornhub-rape-trafficking.html

  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stop_Enabling_Sex_Traffickers_Act

  10. https://ncsfreedom.org/fosta/



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