Who needs govt web censorship when you have Tumblr?

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ITEM: Microblogging site Tumblr banned “adult” content from its site as of December 17th. And the reasons behind it highlight the amount of control that web giants have over what people can and can’t see online.

Tumblr – which was acquired in 2013 by Yahoo, which was in turn acquired by Verizon last year – hasn’t given an official reason, other than that it’s responding to allegations of child pornography being posted on its site. However, industry wisdom suggests it’s also a response to Apple kicking Tumblr’s app off the App Store last month following the child porn reports.

Another likely factor is the FOSTA-SESTA Act, a law that was signed into law in April, goes into effect in January. The stated objective of FOSTA-SESTA is to combat online sex trafficking – in part by holding sites like Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook legally responsible for any posts that could be construed as solicitation for sex. Up to now, websites were shielded from liability over illegal content under Section 230 (“safe harbour”) of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. FOSTA-SESTA essentially removes that shield regarding online trafficking – although its definition of what counts as online trafficking content is characteristically vague enough to other sexually-related content.

As it happens, Tumblr hosts lots of sexually-related content and communities, including sex workers. Consequently, the only feasible way it can quickly spot, flag and remove illegal content is via automated AI algorithms that can accurately sort legal content from illegal content. And AI in general right now is not that accurate.

Given all of that, Tumblr evidently went for the nuclear option: just ban all porn. And it’s inadvertently illustrated how bad it is at filtering by flagging all kinds of content that doesn’t violate its new policy.

Meanwhile, Facebook – which already doesn’t allow porn – faces a similar liability problem with FOSTA-SESTA, compounded by the fact that its AI algorithms aren’t even good enough to spot fake news with sufficient accuracy, let alone sexual solicitation. So the social media giant has just updated its policies on sexual solicitation in a way that potentially makes it almost impossible to even talk about sex at all.

The amount of overkill on Facebook’s part is sort of understandable – its content policy has drawn so much regulatory attention that the last thing it needs right now is to be caught allowing sex traffickers to use its platform – especially now that it can be prosecuted for it.

But there’s another angle here – the fact that these companies have to resort to overkill to ensure illegal content is kept off their platforms is shining a light on just how much power these companies have to control what content people can access.

Talk about a game-changer

Think of it: 20 years ago (at least in the US), government attempts to censor ‘obscene’ and other illegal content fell relatively flat because of the distributed ‘long-tail’ nature of the web that transformed heavy-handed censorship into a virtually pointless and never-ending game of Whack-a-mole.

By contrast, in 2018, the most widely used platforms for internet content are controlled by a handful of companies. At the risk of drastically oversimplifying, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google, Tumblr, Instagram etc effectively ARE the internet now in terms of how most people experience it and discover content, especially developing mobile-first markets.

Yes, the web is a big place and there are plenty of places to find censored content. But the amount of gatekeeper control these companies have over content and online communities is substantial, as is the number of people affected by their content policies. The concentration of gatekeeper power means regulators have fewer companies to pressure into playing ball – or less moles to whack, if you like. And thanks to Facebook’s shenanigans, regulators everywhere are taking a much greater interest in internet censorship than they have in the past. They may not take that to the extremes of, say, China (although China is reportedly encouraging its Belt & Road partners to do just that), but they may not have to – the web giants seem keen to go the extra mile themselves to avoid regulation, if only to ensure that their advertisers aren’t scared away.

To be clear, I think proclamations about the death of free speech and the internet are overblown. On the other hand, it’s important to realize that the goalposts have moved. As Zeynep Tufekci pointed out at the start of this year, old axioms of free speech, censorship and the marketplace of ideas don’t apply in the 21st Century where social media platforms compete for your attention using algorithms that can be gamed by advertisers, political parties or Russian trolls.

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