Tumblr Porn Ban is a Window into the Unsustainable Logic of Internet Capitalism

Today Tumblr announced that they were effective banning porn and sex related content except most text from their platform as of December 17th this year. This policy comes on the heels of Apple delisting the Tumblr app from the App Store because of some child pornography that slipped through their filters. This move to ban this content follows similar bans from other digital technology and financial companies over the past few years including Paypal, Patreon, and Facebook. Although I am always in support of deplatforming pedophilic content (and content created from trafficking), these moves that also sweep up content created by sex workers and pornographic actors is indicative of inherent problems of large social networks themselves and how legitimate sex content (and the people who make them) is being victimized by it. Note I am not a sex worker and so I’m only speaking about this from my perspective as a socialist and sociologist. Please go to my Twitter where I’ve been retweeting sex workers’ unique perspectives on this topic.

Part of my original thread on this topic from earlier today.

As I mentioned in the above Twitter thread, it makes no logical sense why Tumblr (and many of these other platforms) would ban sex content when the problem was specifically child pornography, which again we all agree should be banned from the internet. First of all by banning sex content these companies are leaving advertising and payment processing money on the table which seems like a contradictory thing for capitalists to do. Secondly, they are doing this when we know good and well that child pornography and sex trafficking related content is not the same thing as general sexual content or content created by sex workers. Thirdly, Tumblr itself said that its ban from the App Store was related to a piece of child porn that got past it’s already existing child porn filters. So they have filters and NSFW tags….but somehow banning everything is the solution. It doesn’t add up chief. 

No Idea Idk GIF by Bounce - Find & Share on GIPHY

More likely reason for this ban is twofold. One pressure from the government and conservative forces that pushed and passed the anti-sex work FOSTA bill (aka 
H.R.1865 Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017)
which makes internet platforms for hosting content that facilitates sex work or trafficking activities. The rhetoric around those laws, which too many liberals and leftists have also bought into, have equated sex work by free individuals with sex trafficking. The result has been that platforms that sex workers depend on for their work banning them for fear that they might end up like Backpage which is being legally attacked over the content posted on their site. In this anti-sex work environment it is easy for any company feeling this state facilitated pressure to simply wipe out all sex content. The problem, as discussed at length on Twitter (won’t be linking directly to examples cause I don’t want folks to be harassed via my article), is that sex workers especially Black, Native, and Women of Color who do sex work are being cut off from safe venues to do their work in. Because our society is very hostile to sex workers, especially women/LGBT ones, its easy for Tumblr and other platforms to effectively throw them under the bus to protect themselves instead of fighting for the users who bring tons of value to their sites.

The second reason why wholesale bans seem attractive to these platforms is because of their drive to maximize profits even in light of inherent problems with their platforms. All the large platforms, Tumblr included, currently face situations where their growth has become a liability to their profitability. That liability is rooted in these platforms become de facto public spaces where all groups in society come to discuss issues and do business. The problem there is that they have alot more untoward activity to deal with. The obvious solution from an user perspective is to prioritize the safety of users and have a robust moderation/reporting systems. The problem is that doing either cuts into the profits of these companies as banning Nazis for example will lower ad revenue and having a well organized moderation division costs money. I think many of these companies thought that all they needed to scale was adding more servers when in reality they have to basically govern millions of people based on their own values, that of their users, and the states that allow them to do business there.

In light of that contradiction they seem to be option to arguing that its simply too hard to moderate this much content and just wholesale ban inconvenient groups as they become less profitable. That’s the reason why sex workers are attacked but Nazis aren’t, the political cost of supporting sex workers is much less than supporting Nazis…which well says alot about this society. What they won’t face is the possibility that their platforms are simply too large or badly organized at their core for the purposes that users want to use them for. Even if they acknowledge the fundamental flaws in their business model they won’t admit it until they absolutely have to because acknowledging that will likely mean a drop in their stocks which are dependent on investors believing that profits will grown indefinitely. Although Silicon Valley pushes this logic to the extreme, the response by these platforms to this problem is like that of all capitalists: extract maximum profits before the market crashes and escape before you are held responsible for the carnage you leave behind. As these platforms continue to grow expect more of this “cut the fat” logic being applied to communities on their sites that become economically or politically inconvenient while making the market increasingly hostile to any newcomers through the vertical monopolies being created by these same platforms. And considering that we live in a white supremacist settler colonial society, I put money on it being marginalized non-white people (especially poor, disabled, and LGBT folks) who will bear the cost of this online capital expansion and increasing state control over the web. 

Against Black Inclusion in Facial Recognition

By Nabil Hassein

Researchers have documented the frequent inability of facial recognition software to detect Black people’s faces due to programmers’ use of unrepresentative data to train machine learning models.1 This issue is not unique, but systemic; in a related example, automated passport photo validation has registered Asian people’s open eyes as being closed.2 Such technological biases have precedents in mediums older than software. For example, color photography was initially optimized for lighter skin tones at the expense of people with darker skin, a bias corrected mainly due to the efforts and funding of furniture manufacturers and chocolate sellers to render darker tones more easily visible in photographs — the better to sell their products.3 Groups such as the Algorithmic Justice League have made it their mission to “highlight algorithmic bias” and “develop practices for accountability during the design, development, and deployment of coded systems”.4 I support all of those goals abstractly, but at a concrete level, I question whose interests would truly be served by the deployment of automated systems capable of reliably identifying Black people.

As a longtime programmer, I know first-hand that software can be an unwelcoming medium for Black folks, not only because of racism among programmers, but also because of biases built into code, which programmers can hardly avoid as no other foundations exist to build on. It’s easy for me to understand a desire to rid software of these biases. Just last month, I wrote up a sketch of a proposal to decolonize the Pronouncing software library5 I used in a simple art project to generate rhymes modeled on those of my favorite rapper.6 So I empathized when I heard Joy Buolamwini of the Algorithmic Justice League speak on wearing a white mask to get her own highly imaginative “Aspire Mirror” project involving facial recognition to perceive her existence.7 Modern technology has rendered literal Frantz Fanon’s metaphor of “Black Skin, White Masks”.8

Facial recognition has diverse applications, but as a police and prison abolitionist, the enhancement of state-controlled surveillance cameras (including police body cameras) to automatically identify people looms much larger in my mind than any other use.9 Researchers at Georgetown University found that fully half of American adults, or over 100 million people, are registered in one or another law enforcement facial recognition database, drawing from sources such as driver’s license photos.10 Baltimore Police used the technology to identify participants in the uprising following the murder of Freddie Gray.11 The US government plans to use facial recognition to identify every airline passenger exiting the United States.12 Machine learning researchers have even reinvented the racist pseudoscience of physiognomy, in a study claiming to identify criminals with approximately 90% accuracy based on their faces alone — using data provided by police.13

I consider it obvious that most if not all data collected by police to serve their inherently racist mission will be severely biased. It is equally clear to me that no technology under police control will be used to hold police accountable or to benefit Black folks or other oppressed people. Even restricting our attention to machine learning in the so-called “justice” system, examples abound of technology used to harm us, such as racist predictive models used by the courts to determine bail and sentencing decisions — matters of freedom and captivity, life and death.14 Accordingly, I have no reason to support the development or deployment of technology which makes it easier for the state to recognize and surveil members of my community. Just the opposite: by refusing to don white masks, we may be able to gain some temporary advantages by partially obscuring ourselves from the eyes of the white supremacist state. The reality for the foreseeable future is that the people who control and deploy facial recognition technology at any consequential scale will predominantly be our oppressors. Why should we desire our faces to be legible for efficient automated processing by systems of their design? We could demand instead that police be forbidden to use such unreliable surveillance technologies. Anti-racist technologists could engage in high-tech direct action by using the limited resources at our disposal to further develop extant techniques for tricking machine learning models into misclassifications,15 or distributing anti-surveillance hardware such as glasses designed to obscure the wearer’s face from cameras.16

This analysis clearly contradicts advocacy of “diversity and inclusion” as the universal or even typical response to bias. Among the political class, “Black faces in high places” have utterly failed to produce gains for the Black masses.17 Similarly, Black cops have shown themselves just as likely as white cops to engage in racist brutality and murder.18 Why should the inclusion of Black folks in facial recognition, or for that matter, the racist technology industry be different? Systemic oppression cannot be addressed by a change in the complexion of the oppressor, as though a rainbow 1% and more white people crowding the prisons would mean justice. That’s not the world I want to live in. We must imagine and build a future of real freedom.

All of the arguments I’ve presented could be (and have been) applied to many domains beyond facial recognition. I continue to grapple with what that means for my own work as a technologist and a political organizer, but I am firm already in at least two conclusions. The first is that despite every disadvantage, we must reappropriate oppressive technology for emancipatory purposes. The second is that the liberation of Black folks and all oppressed peoples will never be achieved by inclusion in systems controlled by a capitalist elite which benefits from the perpetuation of racism and related oppressions. It can only be achieved by the destruction of those systems, and the construction of new technologies designed, developed, and deployed by our own communities for our own benefit. The struggle for liberation is not a struggle for diversity and inclusion — it is a struggle for decolonization, reparations, and self-determination. We can realize those aspirations only in a socialist world.

Nabil Hassein is a software developer and organizer based in Brooklyn, NY.

  1. https://www.digitaltrends.com/photography/google-apologizes-for-misidentifying-a-black-couple-as-gorillas-in-photos-app/; https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/28/joy-buolamwini-when-algorithms-are-racist-facial-recognition-bias
  2. https://www.dailydot.com/irl/richard-lee-eyes-closed-facial-recognition/
  3. https://petapixel.com/2015/09/19/heres-a-look-at-how-color-film-was-originally-biased-toward-white-people/
  4. https://www.ajlunited.org
  5. https://pronouncing.readthedocs.io/en/latest/
  6. https://nabilhassein.github.io/blog/generative-doom/
  7. https://www.ted.com/talks/joy_buolamwini_how_i_m_fighting_bias_in_algorithms/
  8. Frantz Fanon: “Black Skin, White Masks”.↩
  9. https://theintercept.com/2017/03/22/real-time-face-recognition-threatens-to-turn-cops-body-cameras-into-surveillance-machines/
  10. https://www.law.georgetown.edu/news/press-releases/half-of-all-american-adults-are-in-a-police-face-recognition-database-new-report-finds.cfm
  11. http://www.aclunc.org/docs/20161011_geofeedia_baltimore_case_study.pdf
  12. https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/privacy-pia-cbp030-tvs-may2017.pdf
  13. https://www.rt.com/news/368307-facial-recognition-criminal-china/
  14. https://www.propublica.org/article/machine-bias-risk-assessments-in-criminal-sentencing
  15. https://codewords.recurse.com/issues/five/why-do-neural-networks-think-a-panda-is-a-vulture; https://cvdazzle.com/
  16. https://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2015/08/07/eyeglasses-with-face-un-recognition-function-to-debut-in-japan/
  17. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation”, Chapter 3, “Black Faces in High Places”.↩
  18. https://mic.com/articles/118290/it-s-time-to-talk-about-the-black-police-officers-who-killed-freddie-gray


Why the Idea of Galactic Wars Over Resources Make Little Sense

So I was involved in a Twitter convo some months ago regarding a Polygon piece on No Man’s Sky and how video games conceptualize space travel and exploration as basically resource consumption. Ben Kuchera’s central point was that:

"I personally really enjoy No Man’s Sky and will continue to, but it’s a bummer that the entire game is based around that unquestioned consumption on the part of the player. There is no way to create on these worlds, no way to look for balance or to react to each unique environment. For a game that’s supposed to be about the wonder of the infinite, it’s a shame that the only tools given to the player are those that let them take whatever they want."

My thinking in response to that was these tweets:

Thinking back on that last tweet drove me down a rabbit hole that I’ve now decided to drag all the rest of y’all into *cackles*.

My discussion above and the Polygon one about resource extraction and exploitation was based on our assumptions about how resource acquisition happens here on Earth and the wars, genocides, and slaveries it often incites. Most sci-fi plots that happen on Earth or in space work under the assumption that resources for building civilizations are limited, that groups of sentient beings compete for them, and that war is one of the likely outcomes of these competitions. One of my favorite shows, The Expanse, is wholly driven by the oppression, slavery, and war brought about by competition between Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planet’s Alliance over resources like water and oxygen. Elite: Dangerous, which includes a nearly 1:1 recreation of the Milky Way Galaxy, has its metagame driven by galactic empires competing over resources. You can think of many other examples, but basically resource competition is a mainstay in space sci-fi writing, video games, TV, and movies.

Thinking about Elite: Dangerous specifically in reference to my last tweet got me thinking about something. If, in the example of Elite: Dangerous, we have reliable and fast travel to the other ~400 billion stars in the galaxy and their planets, then why would galactic political units ever need compete with anyone else over resources? I’m working off the assumption that nothing exotic or rare like Element Zero or Deuterium is necessary for space travel/life and that there’s a decent mix of types of planets in each section of the galaxy. But seriously, if we have access to an estimated ~100 billion planets which potentially all have resources then why, like the the aliens in Independence Day, would we have to fight, let alone interact, with any other species or faction on a galactic scale? The only other explanation is that we conquer because we can.

This assumption that most galactic civilizations are going to be at war with other people somehow I suspect is driven by how we imagine our own history, particularly modern colonial history. When doing fieldwork at the Buffalo History Museum I saw an exhibit about the “frontier” aka Seneca homelands where they noted how settlers and Natives “competed” (read: settlers slaughtered Native communities) over land and resources. Now I’ve driven on the Interstate 90 and offshooting roads quite a few time and you can see on those rides that there’s TONS of land that isn’t being occupied by anyone. It’s clear that when various Indigenous nations signed treaties allowing Europeans to share occupation/use of space there was enough for everyone….that is if you were interested in sharing. White settlers, and Americans as their ideological descendents, did not believe in sharing space or responsible use of resources.

White settlers and colonizers in general often spin a narrative of “there wasn’t enough for all of us” to obscure the reality which is that European state making institutions are driven by expansive conceptions of sovereignty, which is a form of political control that grants the sovereign exclusive right to control a particular space. Mid to modern European history is driven by this form of ownership and state making. When British settlers showed up in North America, they brought that idea of ownership with them, and like all the colonizers before them, they claimed every piece of land they could whether they could use it or not. To obscure this greedy and genocidal land claim logic they both make up lies that there wasn’t enough for all of us AND that humans are basically wired that way, neither of which are true.

Back to my point about galactic wars over resources, what happens if we don’t assume that every galactic civilization is like white settlers back home? How would Bioware write humanity differently if they didn’t assume that humans would snatch up every planet they can get their hands on for the sake of it? And how could we develop conflict differently in sci-fi plots if we didn’t assume that nearly every civilization has the same drive for resources and expansion that Europeans on Earth do? What new game mechanics can we develop if we don’t center the story on obtaining resources and consuming them? These questions that can make for VERY interesting and different media only exist if we decolonize our ideas around resources and consumption.

What media have y’all seen, read, played that you think gets away from these harmful assumptions and imagines other kinds of galactic futures?