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22 July 2013

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

Collateral damage in censorship.

By Alex Hern

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.

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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?