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. 

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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. 

Imagining One of Many Decolonial Futures

I have always been a big fan of technology, comics, movies, video games, anime, and all the other things you would expect a Black nerd to like who grew up in the 90s to mid 2000s. Although my actual job is to shepherd undergrads while eventually write a long ass dissertation, I always found time to follow technology, comic, and video game news. There are now A LOT of great publications out here, many of which I follow, including sites like The Verge, Polygon, Engadget, Android/WindowsCentral. Although I really value the insights of the people in the tech blogging industry, there are a lot of problems with how the mainstream reports, discusses, and understands technology and how it impacts our world. As it has been noted in many other discussions there is a lack of attention given to how these current and new technological realities intersect with already existing systems of colonialism, cishertopatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and others that destroys lives every day. There’s also a lack of imagination of other worlds, other possibilities that don’t take these systems of oppression as taken for granted realities. Decolonized Tech seeks to be an online space to imagine these other worlds and possibilities. Continue reading