Tumblr cracks down on porn – and censors the #gay, #lesbian and #bisexual tags

Collateral damage in censorship.

While Cameron announces that he'll be forcing all of Britain to make slightly awkward phone calls to their ISPs in order to be allowed to see all of the internet, Tumblr is providing a salient demonstration of some of the problems that can come with attempting to block porn.

The company, which was bought by Yahoo! in May this year, has announced a crack-down on explicit material being hosted on its service. The changes, which come despite Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer's promise to "let Tumblr be Tumblr", affect the search functionality on the site.

Initially, it looked like the site had made "adult" blogs (full-blown porn, compared to the lesser "NSFW" category, which denotes soft-porn) all but invisible. Blogs which are flagged as NSFW will no longer appear in search for logged-out users or users on mobile devices who don't follow that blog. On logged-in computers, they will show up to users who aren't browsing in safe mode, which is enabled by default for new accounts. Blogs flagged as "adult", however, were completely removed from internal search and external.

That would have meant that the only way to find an adult Tumblr was to actually know the URL of it, or have it reblogged onto your dashboard. That's a major change, not only because Tumblr has a lot of porn sites which use it for hosting, but also because the site has the sort of "alternative" userbase which sees sharing explicit images as just another way to express themselves. As a result, a lot of personal pages end up with NSFW or adult flags. Those pages remain censored by Tumblr, and users will just have to change their behaviour or deal with it.

But there's a dark side to the censorship. As with any attempt to clean up the internet, collateral damage goes far beyond people deliberately posting risqué images. The tags #gay, #lesbian and #bisexual, for example, are now censored on the mobile apps. Those terms do return a lot of porn, but they also return a lot of people discussing their sexuality in a genuinely queer-friendly space. In the meantime, Tumblr suggests the #lgbtq tag, which is actively monitored by their staff and thus guaranteed porn-free.

David Karp, Tumblr's CEO, has addressed some concerns, pointing out that certain aspects of the changes were actually bugs, but doubling-down on the overall restrictions. He writes:

Empowering your creative expression is the most important thing in the world to us. Making sure people aren’t surprised by content they find offensive is also incredibly important and we are always working to put more control in your hands.

Whether it's Tumblr's choice or Yahoo!'s, the site is growing up. Will its users follow?

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

David Cameron addresses pupils at an assembly during a visit to Corby Technical School on September 2, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Can Cameron maintain his refugee stance as he comes under attack from all sides?

Tory MPs, the Sun, Labour and a growing section of the public are calling on the PM to end his refusal to take "more and more". 

The disparity between the traumatic images of drowned Syrian children and David Cameron's compassionless response ("I don't think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees") has triggered a political backlash. A petition calling for greater action (the UK has to date accepted around 5,000) has passed the 100,000 threshold required for the government to consider a debate after tens of thousands signed this morning. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has tweeted: "This is not an immigration issue, it's a humanitarian one, and the human response must be to help. If we don't, what does that make us?" Tory MPs such as Nicola Blackwood, David Burrowes, Jeremy Lefroy and Johnny Mercer have similarly appealed to Cameron to reverse his stance.

Today's Sun declares that the UK has "a proud record of taking in desperate people and we should not flinch from it now if it is beyond doubt that they have fled for their lives." Meanwhile, the Washington Post has published a derisive piece headlined "Britain takes in so few refugees from Syria they would fit on a subway train". Labour has called on Cameron to convene a meeting of Cobra to discuss the crisis and to request an emergency EU summit. Yvette Cooper, who led the way with a speech on Monday outlining how the UK could accept 10,000 refugees, is organising a meeting of councils, charities and faith groups to discuss Britain's response. Public opinion, which can turn remarkably quickly in response to harrowing images, is likely to have grown more sympathetic to the Syrians' plight. Indeed, a survey in March found that those who supported accepting refugees fleeing persecution outnumbered opponents by 47-24 per cent. 

The political question is whether this cumulative pressure will force Cameron to change his stance. He may not agree to match Cooper's demand of 10,000 (though Germany is poised to accept 800,000) but an increasing number at Westminster believe that he cannot remain impassive. Surely Cameron, who will not stand for election again, will not want this stain on his premiership? The UK's obstinacy is further antagonising Angela Merkel on whom his hopes of a successful EU renegotiation rest. If nothing else, Cameron should remember one of the laws of politics: the earlier a climbdown, the less painful it is. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.