2013-07-19

Co.Labs

Tumblr’s Porn Filter Backfires In LGBTQ Community

Though well intentioned, Tumblr’s approach to blocking porn by making certain tags accessible via search has already backfired.



We originally reported on Tumblr’s new porn-blocking technique as a clever way to filter out porn for users who don’t want to see it while not limiting freedom of expression. Unfortunately, it looks like the decision had some unintended consequences.

By blocking the tags #gay, #lesbian, and #bisexual from search results in mobile apps, Tumblr blacklisted a lot of advocacy content in addition to porn, which has some LGBTQ users calling it “a crackdown on our very identities.” It looks particularly bad for Tumblr because the site chose not to block #bi, which is far more pornographic than #bisexual, a term which was similarly blacklisted from Google’s instant search until advocacy groups successfully petitioned to make it searchable.

On Friday, Tumblr attempted to walk back some of the reported changes in a blog post by CEO David Karp, who claimed that blocking the terms from mobile app search was necessary to avoid the apps being taken down from certain app stores. Karp promised that Tumblr would work on more intelligently filtering terms, and in the meantime told users to follow the #lgbtq tag, which is edited by community moderators.

Many will still see Tumblr’s continuing decision to block these tags on mobile apps as ham-fisted and damaging to the site’s gay communities, which underscores a point we made below: Filtering content can be a slippery slope. It initially seemed like Tumblr had taken an intelligent high-tech approach to filtering adult content without clamping down on expression, but by choosing tags used for advocacy in addition to pornography, Tumblr has created a familiar problem for itself.

Update contributed by Gabe Stein


Previous Updates


Yahoo-Owned Tumblr's Clever New Way Of Porn Filtering

July 19, 2013

Tumblr, thanks to its open doors policy, is a place where you can find porn and adult content on the Internet. That's not much of a surprise, given that many sites and apps serve up exactly the same sort of material (lots of which is sampled and re-shared via Tumblogs, of course). But perhaps we need to rewrite that initial sentence. Tumblr is a place where you used to be able to find porn on the Internet. The site has made some porn-related maneuvers, and they're surprisingly technical.

Let's not get into sticky questions about pornography itself. Frankly the debate is tired, and YMMV. Yahoo, with its slightly family-friendly paternal/maternal/big brotherish stance, may have finally decided Tumblr's long-standing pink pixel content is incompatible with its values, and that's possibly a serious PR misstep given that there was a post-acquisition promise Tumblr would continue business uninterrupted. We don't know. What's interesting about the current news is exactly how Tumblr is dealing with the content.

Tumblr is not deleting pornographic content. It's simply making it unfindable.

Tumblogs that fall into adult categories are from now on invisible in Tumblr's internal search engine, because adult-related tags are blocked from the algorithm. Tumblr's also adjusted its robots.txt file to bar search engine indexing robots from discovering Tumblogs that are marked as "adult." The "adult" label can apparently be slapped onto a blog without the owner's input, and as of now that automatically means it won't show up in Google or Bing or any other online site no matter what a particular blog entry is about--even something innocent.

Similarly, Tumblr's new iOS app removes search queries that match tags #gay, #lesbian, and #bisexual, though it's being reported that #bi, #lgbt, and others are still searchable.

But this doesn't stop users from running adult-tagged Tumblogs, nor from visitors navigating to them directly via their browser's URL bar. Effectively Tumblr's taken a high-tech code-based approach to pornographic content. It's not deleting it or blocking it. It's deadstocking it. That's still a form of censorship that flies in the face of founder David Karp's previously staunch defense of freedom of speech, but only sort of. Sure, kids who navigate the web via their parents' PC, with a default browser landing on Yahoo's home page, may now not accidentally stumble onto porn hosted on Yahoo's network via Tumblr... but the content is still there. It's not excised from the Net, it's just much, much harder to find. Presumably the company can hold its hands in the air in a well-known gesture that says "we aren't doing anything wrong"...and in fact in a posting about the new move it argues that it's all for the public good:

Tumblr welcomes and encourages all forms of expression. However, we have to be sensitive to the millions of readers and bloggers from different locations, cultures, and backgrounds with different points of view concerning mature or adult-oriented content.

Tumblr users who log in to the site and specifically turn off adult filtering can still see adult content, and followers of adult Tumblogs can still access their favourite content via the mobile apps. So Tumblr really isn't making it impossible to see adult content on the site. But it's using every code-based trick it can to shutter it away in a very high-walled garden, and block some critical Net navigation methods from getting inside. In a search-engine dominated world this is effectively a sentence of solitary confinement for this sort of content.

Tumblr's not the first, and won't be the last, big Net entity to wrestle with the slippery issue of pornographic content. But the the upshot for Tumblr is still unknown. What may, of course, happen is that Tumblrers who use the service for adult content will simply go elsewhere... and considering that this may be about 10% of Tumblr's userbase, this could be bad news for the site and good news for its rivals.

You may find it admirable or even clever that Tumblr's taking a digitally smart stance on the matter of porn, or other adult content. But for content creators and developers of all types this should be a harsh reminder that what the Net giveth the Net also taketh away. Relying on one particular vehicle for accessing and promoting your content is really risky because at any time the access can be locked off, potentially putting your entire business model at risk.

[Image: Flickr user Nuraishah Bazilah Affandi]