Why You Should Care About Tumblr’s NSFW Ban

Tumblr has banned all NSFW content from its site as of December 18, 2018

Even if you don’t post or reblog porn or nude pics on Tumblr, you may have noticed that many (if not all) of your posts are getting flagged by the site’s idiotic bots, or even that you’ve been shadowbanned. But suppose for a moment that Tumblr’s algorithm or whatever it is really did work like it was supposed to. Why should you care about the NSFW ban if your blog is safe for work?

Well, for one thing, Tumblr has long been a safe space for LGBTIQA+ people to gather and support each other, many of whom are otherwise isolated, and particularly young people who are looking for others in the community to guide them when no one else can or will. As the user in the post I linked to above states, Tumblr was “home to a queer getaway in a politically regressive world full of censorship. This was where I gained extraordinary knowledge of Queer politics, inclusivity, and further strengthening my intersectional feminism. This isn’t just about porn. This is an act of violence against the queer community.” The ban is also harmful to women and feminists as it demonizes the female body, even insofar as to explicitly state that “female-presenting nipples” are verboten.

And it’s undeniably true that the ban has never really been about porn, for as we’ve all seen, the porn bots still exist. The bottom line is that those who own Tumblr now just want us gone. They don’t care about individual users and their idiosyncrasies, they don’t care about small and/or marginalized communities like ours, or fandoms, or artists and writers. What they care about is revenue and what they want are cash cows; users who can be marketed to because they have money to spend on their advertisers’ products.

It’s also not about protecting minors. While it may be true that Tumblr’s App was removed from Apple’s App Store because of some instances of pedophilic porn (I for one have never seen any of that on Tumblr and I’ve been using the site since 2010, but then I didn’t go looking for it in the first place), it would seem that the real impetus behind this ban is a new law known as FOSTA-SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act/Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act), which basically puts the anus–oops! stupid autocorrect–onus on sites like Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook to remove any proscribed content and also holds them responsible for said content if it is not removed.

Tumblr already had a way of flagging NSFW blogs in order to hide them from minors, and let’s face it, if a minor wants to view porn there’s really not much that can stop them from doing so, short of raising them on a desert island free of modern technology. But even if the ban really worked and wasn’t flagging things incorrectly (including, laughably, Tumblr staff’s own post about what would and wouldn’t be allowed on the site), who gets to decide really what is porn and what isn’t? Are artistic nudes porn? Should the works of Mapplethorpe be banned?

According to Tumblr staff, content that is still allowable includes “nudity related to political or newsworthy speech, and nudity found in art, specifically sculptures and illustrations.” While they admit that some of these may be mistakenly flagged they assure us that submitting false flags for review will result in a human being making the final determination as to whether the flag should be removed or not. But either there really isn’t a human reviewing them or that human believes that a picture of the statue of David, to use one notorious example, is pornographic. Either way they lied.

Even those who of you who don’t use Tumblr should be concerned about where this is all headed. Many of us who were around in the early days of the Internet remember when it was a vast network of thriving online communities, a haven of freedom of expression for writers, artists, and armchair philosophers; not the corporate money-making monster it has become today. And we’ve watched with sadness as that wonderful old World Wide Web slowly but surely disappears.

As one user put it, Tumblr “was (and is, at least for now) very much a part of the Old Internet, the internet of the early 2000s, where you had a space to be weird and experiment and play around however you want”. And if history is any indication, the likes of laws like FOSTA-SESTA will eventually lead to the strangulation of freedom of expression on every site, not just Tumblr.