Special Briefing: When the Internet Regulates Morality

Tumblr shook the online world this week by announcing it would ban all sexually explicit posts.

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Why you should care

Because everyone needs an outlet.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What Happened? Microblogging platform Tumblr shook the online world this week by announcing it would ban all sexually explicit posts — including most nudity — starting Dec. 17. Tumblr had long mostly ignored adult content, allowing a large community of NSFW creators and fans to thrive. But after it was removed from Apple’s App Store last month over an incident involving child pornography, the clock ran out on the platform’s open-minded policy.

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A man accessing Tumblr via smartphone.

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Why does it matter? The ban has sparked significant blowback from dedicated users who’ve relied on Tumblr as an outlet for their explicit interests or as a support network for their lifestyles. What’s more, users have already reported various instances of incorrectly flagged material since Tumblr announced the ban (it’s is giving users a chance to appeal before the ban takes effect). That has fueled criticism that it’s fumbling its attempts to rein in adult content. More broadly, the ban has also shown how Apple’s efforts to keep its App Store clean may have far-reaching consequences for platforms like Tumblr.

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

A platform apart. Tumblr’s previous permissiveness toward nudity set it apart from other social media platforms, providing a prejudice-free place for otherwise marginalized social groups. Members of the LGBTQ community, as well as sexual assault survivors, have used it as a safe space for communication and support. Sex workers marketed themselves with few restrictions and shared educational material in a bid to destigmatize their industry. Even after Yahoo purchased the platform for $1 billion in 2013, management doubled down on its porn-friendly policy, suggesting it shouldn’t be the one to draw a line between art and explicit content. That nonjudgmental approach won many people over, including those who say Tumblr helped them better understand their sexual orientation.

There’s a line. Yet Tumblr’s liberal take on content has also caused serious problems. Despite a strict no-tolerance policy, child pornography still found its way onto the platform. In recent weeks, cases have cropped up across the U.S. in which suspects were charged with uploading illegal material to Tumblr. A quick Google search reveals that police from Arkansas to Vermont have been busy hunting down such offenders. Other countries are also on alert: Earlier this year, Indonesia blocked the platform, and just yesterday, South Korean authorities arrested 101 people for distributing child porn on Tumblr.

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Tumblr’s previous permissiveness toward nudity set it apart from other social media platforms, providing a prejudice-free place for otherwise marginalized social groups. Members of the LGBTQ community, as well as sexual assault survivors, have used it as a safe space for communication and support.

Source BERNARDO MONTOYA/AFP/Getty

A safer, cleaner internet? Few would argue with the dangers posed by the proliferation of child pornography. But there’s another aspect to the Tumblr saga that’s rankling some critics: the power of Apple’s App Store. At least since CEO Steve Jobs famously declared in 2010 that “folks who want porn can buy an Android phone,” the online marketplace has shunned ribald corners of the internet. Early on, it purged thousands of apps featuring “content that is frequently pornographic.” In 2016, it booted third-party Reddit apps that allowed users to toggle NSFW material on and off. Before banning adult content outright, Tumblr had been set to Safe Mode by default. Given Apple’s massive market share, some are wondering whether the company’s in-house sanitization efforts are forcing much of the internet to play ball with its rules.

Anti-trust us. Apple’s control over content is even playing out in the legal realm. As part of a long-running case, the Supreme Court is considering whether the App Store constitutes a monopoly. In 2011, iPhone owners sued Apple for driving up costs by requiring them to buy apps exclusively from its online market, thereby locking out third-party tools. Apple’s argument probably doesn’t come as a surprise: Strict control over apps is necessary to protect customers from malware. A 2014 dismissal of the case was overturned in 2017, and now the country’s highest court will render a ruling on whether or not users can sue Apple for being a monopoly. The court’s decision probably won’t affect the company’s adult content policies — but it highlights how powerful of a force its App Store can be.

WHAT TO READ

RIP Tumblr Porn. You Made Me Who I Am, by John Paul Brammer for the Washington Post

“First, it meant you were probably queer; the platform is a hub for LGBTQ discourse. But being on Tumblr also meant you had an offbeat sense of humor, an interest in social justice and, of course, a fondness for utter filth.”

Apple Has Always Been a Control Freak. But Is It Guilty of Abusing Its Monopoly Power? by John Naughton in the Guardian

“Apple’s iron grip on [the App Store] ensures that very few dangerous, insecure or malevolent apps get on to it — or into consumers’ iPhones and iPads.”

WHAT TO WATCH

Apple Argues Supreme Court Case Over App Store

“The idea that consumers can’t sue a store that monopolizes seems, to me, strange. It would make you wonder, ‘Well, can you sue Walmart if they monopolize?’” 

Watch on CNBC on YouTube:

Are Facebook and Google Censoring Content?

“We have these opaque algorithms controlling what we can and can’t see and we have no idea how they’re being controlled.”

Watch on Al-Jazeera on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Getting flagged. Tumblr has relied on an algorithm to identify adult content to be removed — and the results have been predictably unreliable. Some users have shared curiously flagged posts, including: a close-up of the classic statue Laocoön and His Sons, a still from the children’s anime Castle in the Sky, a nipple-revealing cartoon frog, sketches of dogs and various landscape photos.

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