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Want To Know Why Tumblr Is Cracking Down On Sex? Look To FOSTA/SESTA

a person playing on a computer in the dark
flickr/Piers Nye

Tumblr and Facebook are choosing to punish sexual content on their sites because of a pair of laws that spell danger for sex workers, the queer community, and anyone who uses the internet to get laid.

Last week both Tumblr and Facebook announced changes to their terms of service, severely limiting sexual expression. Tumblr opted to remove adult content, while Facebook amended their policy on sexual solicitation to effectively ban talking about sex at all on their platform. As a queer person and a porn producer/performer, it has been a scary week.

But what’s behind it? Is it Apple’s removal of the Tumblr app from their store, is it payment processors again? Yes, in part, but this isn’t the whole picture.

I’ve been in this line of work three years and have seen platforms cave into demands to remove sexual content from payment processors, but this feels different to me. Facebook already didn’t allow sex workers on its platform, and I don’t believe Tumblr is beholden to PP’s the same way sites like Patreon are, because they aren’t charging their user base the same way.

So why clamp down now, and why did the announcements come so close together? To my eyes the answer lies in the twin-headed anti-sex demon that is SESTA/FOSTA.

These recently passed laws effectively poke holes in section 230, a 1996 addition to the Communications Decency Act, which states:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

For example, if someone decides to tweet a libelous rant about me, I can’t sue Twitter for allowing it on their platform. But under SESTA/FOSTA, sites are responsible for any sex work advertisements hosted on their sites servers, whether they know the content is there or not. To be clear, states can now sue tech companies who have content related to sex work on their websites.

Tumblr opted to tackle the problem of possible sex work advertisements by using an algorithm to flag any adult content. The problem is their algorithm is about as ineffective at spotting porn as my dear old Nan, who still thinks I work in photography, despite me telling her several times what I do for a living.

I’ve seen examples of it flagging anything vaguely human shaped, as well as various examples of people tinkering with images to prevent the algorithm from spotting the lewd nature of them. Here’s an example of it being defeated by an owl wearing a hat. They claim the algorithm will improve with time, but I can’t see it ever being good at its job.

This law was sold as a way to combat trafficking — which absolutely needs to happen — but lawmakers willingly ignored concerns from sex workers. Because those involved don’t believe consensual sex work exists, they opted to class any form of full service sex work as sex trafficking.

To the people behind this bill, the friends of mine who had other job prospects but went into sex work to better control their hours and make more money doing something they love, are no different than someone who has been trafficked into slavery. These same friends of mine are now all at risk because of this law because they can no longer use these sites to screen potential clients and keep themselves safe.

This law was sold as a way to combat trafficking, which absolutely does need to happen, but lawmakers willingly ignored concerns from sex workers. Click To Tweet

These laws aren’t even effective at keeping trafficking from happening. Freedom Network USA, an anti-trafficking organization expressed these concerns at the time the bills were being proposed:

Responsible website administrators can, and do, provide important data and information to support criminal investigations. Reforming [Section 230] to include the threat of civil litigation could deter responsible website administrators from trying to identify and report trafficking. It is important to note that responsible website administration can make trafficking more visible—which can lead to increased identification. There are many cases of victims being identified online—and little doubt that without this platform, they would have not been identified. Internet sites provide a digital footprint that law enforcement can use to investigate trafficking into the sex trade, and to locate trafficking victims. When websites are shut down, the sex trade is pushed underground and sex trafficking victims are forced into even more dangerous circumstances.

Evidence from the months since SESTA/FOSTA passed back this up. Law enforcement are struggling to find victims of trafficking online since Backpage shut down. If they can’t see the victims, they can’t find them. I really cannot begin to describe how monumentally ineffective at helping trafficking victims, and absurdly dangerous to consensual sex workers this law is.

SESTA/FOSTA was signed into law in April, and though it was reported that it would begin being enforced in January 2019, it looks like that’s already gotten underway. On October the 1st a lawsuit was filed against Facebook by a Jane Doe in Texas. It states that back in 2012, when she was 15, a Facebook friend messaged her with a way to make money as a model.

When she met with him he abused and trafficked her. It should go without saying that what happened to this person is awful, and she absolutely deserves justice against her abuser. Under SESTA/FOSTA however, Facebook may be charged with Negligence, Gross Negligence, and breaking Texas laws related to benefitting from trafficking.

So it makes sense that getting slapped with this lawsuit would make Facebook sit up and take notice. They know how terrible algorithms are at picking up sexual content, so they updated their sexual solicitation policy to effectively ban talking about kinks, fetishes, boobs, butts, anything that might get you laid from using their platform. How this will affect their new dating site venture I have no idea.

The Tumblr side of things is a bit murkier, but it’s hard for me to imagine Verizon wanting to risk similar lawsuits given that they’ve had a lot of troubles with administrating Tumblr. So it’s just a lot cleaner and easier for them to remove adult content to make sure they get rid of any sex work related advertising, and hope Tumblr recovers from the mass exodus that is sure to occur.

So how does this affect you, the presumably non sex worker? The Tumblr and Facebook bans are just the start. As SESTA/FOSTA becomes more entrenched and more tech companies fall in line, I predict we will see other platforms begin to clamp down on any content related to sex for fear of being sued. It’s easier for them to ban all sex-related content than to try to screen for trafficking accurately.

Do you watch porn? Do you like to discuss sex on the internet? Do you use the internet to get laid? Those days are short-lived unless we fight to repeal this. And because most companies have operations in the USA, this will affect people all over the world. I live in the UK and this has already affected me, and this is without the version of the bill that the UK government wants to pass.

As SESTA/FOSTA becomes more entrenched and more tech companies fall in line, I predict we will see other platforms begin to clamp down on any content related to sex for fear of being sued. Click To Tweet

A lot of queer communities connect online, and because our existence is seen, to some, as inherently sexual, we can expect policies that limit sexual expression to hit queer people much harder. It’s difficult to realize certain things about yourself as a queer person without the internet, and sex education for gay, lesbian, and trans people is severely lacking without the internet. I really fear for the younger generations of queer people growing up in a world where talking about sex online gets you banned.

Are tubesites like Pornhub the answer? I can tell you as a creator that their platform is extremely bad. Any porn you watch on there without a verified tick is very likely stolen from creators such as myself and reuploaded (please stop using Tubesites). Also there’s no guarantee they won’t be affected by SESTA/FOSTA too, given that they make money off these videos, and they can’t prove people in them aren’t being trafficked, because they don’t verify many of their uploaders.

We need people to see this bill for what it is, a U.S. government-sponsored censorship law with far-reaching effects on the entire internet. It passed with bipartisan support; damn near every representative and senator voted positively on it.

We need to let them know loudly that this law is not only unfit for purpose, it’s incredibly dangerous. Stand up for sexual expression online, because if you don’t you might soon lose it for good.