Tumblr’s Adult Content Ban Makes a Bad Case for Centralized Social Platforms

Today is December 17, International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. It’s also the day Tumblr’s “adult content” ban goes into effect, which is ironic, given that Tumblr’s ban removes yet another safe space for sex workers online.

What does the ban entail?

The ban means Tumblr users can no longer “upload images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples—this includes content that is so photorealistic that it could be mistaken for featuring real-life humans.” There are exceptions. They include “certain types of artistic, educational, newsworthy, or political content featuring nudity” and those pesky female-presenting nipples when they’re in the context of “breastfeeding, birth or after-birth moments, and health-related situations, such as post-mastectomy or gender confirmation surgery.”

Tumblr promised that people with content that violates the platform’s new terms would be notified in advance of December 17.

Who is affected by the ban?

The wide umbrella of Tumblr users who enjoyed and posted adult content on the platform includes people who don’t have a lot of safe options for building a community around their profession, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity. A trans woman who wrote for Slate about how Tumblr’s ban would imperil trans communities on the platform found that several of her posts were flagged ahead of the ban’s enactment. They included her most recent selfie, a “nonsexual” view of “just [her] daily face,” a clothed queer couple “snuggling,” and a photo essay featuring Brazilian trans women. There were no nipples in any of these posts.

Besides providing a safe space for trans people to share thoughts about their identities, interests, and bodies freely, Tumblr has offered a haven for all kinds of queer women and men exploring their sexualities and seeking to become part of accepting communities.

It also leaves sex workers with one less digital platform to exchange tips and resources with others in the profession. FOSTA/SESTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act passed by Congress earlier this year, effectively shut down online platforms many sex workers used that enabled them to work indoors (much safer than working on the streets) and without a pimp.

How did we get here?

Tumblr was created independently by David Karp while he was an intern at Frederator Studios (disclosure: I used to work there) and launched in 2007. Yahoo bought Tumblr in 2013 for $1.1 billion, though users weren’t pleased about it, circulating at least one petition against the acquisition. Verizon purchased Yahoo four years later and showed a lot more concern over Tumblr’s NSFW content. A former Tumblr engineer told Vox anonymously that Tumblr’s adult content ban had been “in the works for about six months” prior to its announcement on December 3.

This means the effort started well before Apple removed Tumblr from its iOS app store, which happened because child pornography had been found on the social platform. Turns out Verizon/Tumblr was not concerned about child abuse when making its decision on banning adult content, but rather concerned about selling advertising—something it couldn’t do with so much “adult content” on the platform.

Censorship in the hands of big tech hasn’t historically gone well.

In October this year, Apple installed a filter that blocked educational material about sex and resources for LGBTQ youth but allowed searches for Daily Stormer articles about legalizing rape and how it’s “fundamentally good for America.” Apple’s filter also failed to touch the deeply homophobic Westboro Baptist Church’s website and blocked searches like “Kanye dick pic” while allowing results for “Kim Kardashian nipples.”

Facebook’s “community standards” regarding “sexual solicitation” now prevent users from posting everything from porn (standard) to “vague suggestive statements, such as ‘looking for a good time tonight,’” “sexualized slang,” and “content (hand drawn, digital, or real-world art) that may depict explicit sexual activity or suggestively posed person(s).” Users also cannot post content that “offers or asks for…partners who share fetish or sexual interests,” a ban that could dismantle sex-positive kink communities.

This all leaves a lot of room for interpretation for the people over at Facebook to dictate what constitutes appropriate sex-related talk among consenting adults. Surely no one is bringing any biases to the table, not like Apple.

Is there a decentralized alternative? 

Problematic censorship has been made possible by massive, centralized tech companies. Besides greed for advertiser dollars, there’s the reality that trying to keep platforms safe from sex traffickers and child abusers isn’t easy and inherently involves drawing some tricky lines in the sand between content indicative of illegal, predatory activity and communication among consenting adults.

Tumblr’s ban, as adult industry token Intimate.io’s chief information officer Leah Callon-Butler told BREAKER in an email, “was only made possible because of the centralized nature of the platform. In the future, if communities are able to organize themselves in a decentralized manner, there would be no single point of weakness susceptible to unjust pressure or coercion.”

Lots of conversation has taken place in Intimate.io’s Telegram group lamenting the repercussions of Tumblr’s ban, with the someone from the “adult” social network Sharesome recommending its services. Sharesome operates a token economy using tokens called Flame, which people can use to tip others in the network for the content they post. If tokenomics can work as an income model for social platforms, it could remove the pressure of having to cater to advertisers who want SFW content.

Blockchain has been used in China to share stories of sexual harassment and assault. When mainstream platforms in the country started censoring these stories, survivors took to blockchain technology to permanently record their stories. It provided a safe space from dangerous censorship.

Related: China’s New Proposal Would Further Limit Platforms to Anonymously Report Sexual Harassment

Blockchain-based adult industry payments company SpankChain also had something to say about Tumblr’s ban. The company posted this statement on Twitter shortly after it was announced, calling out Tumblr for essentially using and discarding the sex workers who used its platform.

Protecting people online from bad actors is difficult, and a decentralized alternative to social platforms that ban adult content isn’t a guaranteed safe solution. “More and more corporates are deciding that the best risk minimization strategy is to restrict everything of adult nature,” said Callon-Butler—a solution that also puts marginalized communities at risk.

At least there’s still Twitter?