In the aftermath of the social network Tumblr banning all explicit content, some writers have considered the wider implications. The reasons for the bans are pretty clear – for example, Tumblr has a problem with illegal content and it’s easier and cheaper to ban all potentially problematic content than to moderate it – but the results can be far-reaching.
Steven Thrasher in The Atlantic explains What Tumblr’s Porn Ban Really Means.
But the Tumblr adult-content purge reveals the enormous cultural authority, financial extraction, and what the philosopher Michel Foucault called “biopower” that tech companies wield over our life. As intimate interactions are ever more mediated by tech giants, that power will only increase, and more and more of our humanity is bound to be mediated through content moderation. That moderation is subjective, culturally specific, and utterly political. And Silicon Valley doesn’t have a sterling track record of getting it right.
The problem with such subjectivity is summed up pretty well by one trans person’s question: they’re undergoing transition from male to female. At what point do their nipples become “female-presenting”, which is explicitly prohibited in the new Tumblr rules? It’s the same issue that means Facebook takes down breastfeeding images: boobs are just for porn, right?
There’s a problem with some explicit content. But not all of it. For some people it’s an opportunity to explore sexuality and identity in a safe environment. Take trans people, for example. Explicit Tumblr blogs are among the very few places where you can see positive portrayal of trans men and trans women as sexually desirable. They’re also among the few places where you can see what your body might look like after hormones, or after surgery. Content bans affect that content too.
Using social media intimately in our life hasn’t been all bad. Indeed, as a recent scientific article by Oliver Haimson on some 240 Tumblr gender “transition blogs” showed, social media can play “an important role in adding complexity to people’s experiences managing changing identities during life transitions.”
I can attest to that: before I came out I spent a lot of time reading LGBTI Tumblr blogs that posted what the new rules might well prohibit.
Over at Engadget, Violet Blue describes “the internet war on sex“.
While we were all distracted by the moist dumpster fire of Tumblr announcing its porn ban, Facebook updated its startling, wide-ranging anti-sex policy that is surely making evangelicals and incels cream their jeans (let’s just hope they don’t post about that). Facebook’s astonishing ban on language pertaining to sexuality, among many other things sex-related, is so sweeping and egregiously censorious that it’s impossible to list all its insanity concisely.
It’s called the “Sexual Solicitation” policy. Along with “sexual slang,” the world’s standard-bearing social media company is policing and banning “sex chat or conversations,” “mentioning sexual roles, sexual preference, commonly sexualized areas of the body” and more.
This, remember, is the social network that can’t tell the difference between hardcore pornography and women sharing photos of themselves breastfeeding.
Once again, the rules are designed to address a problem with some content. However:
…the arc of internet sex censorship is long, and it bends as far away from justice (and reason) as possible. Corporations controlling the internet had been steadily (and sneakily, hypocritically) moving this direction all along, at great expense to women, LGBT people, artists, educators, writers, and marginalized communities — and to the delight of bigots and conservatives everywhere.
The Facebook and Tumblr news came after Starbucks announced it will start filtering its WiFi with one of those secret porn blacklists that always screw productivity for anyone researching grown-up topics, and invariably filter out crucial health and culture websites.
The list goes on. Instagram goose-steps for Facebook’s censors; Amazon buries sex books; Patreon, Cloudflare, PayPal, and Square are among many which are tacitly unsafe for anyone whose business comes near sexuality. Google’s sex censorship timeline is bad, YouTube is worse. Twitter teeterson the edge of sex censorship amidst its many uncertainties of trust for its users.
The problem here is that even if you agree with the rationale behind the steps the tech giants take, there is always collateral damage – and that damage tends to affect minorities and creative people and educators.
Here’s an example from a few weeks back in Sweden: a government-run website made a sex education video. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat blocked it.