Hard News by Russell Brown


Community standards

As soon as British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that his government would mandate on-by-default internet porn filters for every home in the land, perceptive commentators pointed out a very obvious political flaw in his politically-motivated gambit. A mandatory family-friendly filter would almost certainly take out the websites of two of his biggest backers in the media.

The Sun publishes pictures of women with their breasts exposed, for titillation, and the Daily Mail's "sidebar of shame" is basically all about celebrity sideboob. It hasn't taken long for Cameron to jam things into reverse and declare that his filter wouldn't block"soft" porn (while remaining hopelessly unclear about what it would block) but what's remarkable is that he genuinely doesn't appear to have thought through any of it before making his announcement.

By contrast, a great deal of thought is clearly going on at Tumblr, where people are trying to work out what happens when a community that has always accepted adult content in the same spirit as as it likes cat pictures is acquired by a big company, Yahoo, that doesn't necessarily want to be seen as a porn vendor.

This doesn't necessarily mean they're getting it right. Tumblr performed its own reversal this week. As ReadWrite explained it:

Last week, Tumblr quietly imposed a sort of blackout on “adult content” tags, from the obvious “sex,” “porn” and “BDSM,” to the arbitrary seeming “gay,” “lesbian,” and “depression.” In practice, that meant that any and all blogs that mentioned one of these terms were rendered invisible to anyone looking for them via search engines or Tumblr's own "explore" function. Strangely enough, other sex-related tags like “asshole” and “necrophilia” stayed visible. 

That move cut off what we can safely say were a lot of blogs from just for mentioning one of the banned tags at some point in time. (Back in April, analytics firm SimilarGroup found that 11.4% of Tumblr's 200,000 most-visited domains were adult blogs, although it's not clear how it classified "adult," nor how that ratio holds up among the remainder of Tumblr's 126 million other blogs.) In this case, the net it cast was particularly wide: Even your primarily safe-for-work Tumblr blog—the one that's filled with pictures of your dog and what you had for lunch—would have been blacklisted thanks to that six-month-old post that touched on porn, or even just your battle with depression. 

And there's the semantic problem with porn-filtering. It's one thing to help people avoid seeing things they don't want to see -- which Tumblr did last year in introducing a "Safe Mode" search -- but quite another to proactively block tags and keywords that are part of public discourse. On the other hand, there will be people who want to search on the #gay hashtag but don't actually want hardcore porn coming up in their search results.

According to Tumblr CEO David Karp, that had been happening, it was happening via Tumblr's mobile app, and that fact was threatening Tumblr's status on the iTunes App Store, where the terms and conditions still prevent porn. So although Tumblr backed down on its general search blocks, tags such as #gay, #lesbian, and #bisexual are still blocked in its mobile app. And I suspect it is the very innocence of those terms that gets them blocked. Someone who searches for, say, #cumshot, very clearly wants to see porn. Someone who searches on #lesbian? Not so clearly.

Tumblr's backdown followed a swift and sharp online protest by Tumblr users, and I hope those users stay militant, because if you actually did lose porn from Tumblr you'd lose a decent vision of what we might want porn to be. Tumblogs are personal, and they personalise porn. They're a nightmare in copyright terms, but even very popular blogs like Lady Cheeky and Let Me Do This To You (both very NSFW, obvs, but hot) are still individual erotic visions, female and male respectively.

By contrast the most jarring thing about Tumblr porn is often not the content but the occasional intrusion of spammy commercial porn culture. Some of Tumblr's problems seem to have come from trying to, as Karp puts it, "discourage some not-so-nice people from using Tumblr as free hosting" for such porn sites.

I hope they can find a way through, because the conevrsation they're now being obliged to have touches on what real people want and think, and not on the banality of politicians who want to be seen as our moral protectors.

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