“Free Speech” Platforms are Censoring Nudity, and its Drawing Fire from the EFF

Platforms that are billing themselves as “free speech” alternatives are censoring nudity. The EFF called them out for it.

There are a number of right wing echo chambers out there. More often then not, they bill themselves as “free speech” alternatives to large players like Twitter and Facebook. The premise itself is, like so many other things about far right extremists, built on bald-faced lies. They basically accuse those platforms of “anti-Conservative bias”. To the surprise of almost no one who is capable of logical thinking, these platforms actually have pro-conservative bias. So, why the backlash? It generally stems from a number of things. They want to spread misinformation on health issues such as COVID-19 and freely harass visible minorities among other things without repercussions.

So, a lot of these “alternative” platforms sprung up with this single narrow issue in mind. As a result, you get right wing echo chambers designed explicitly to help amplify hate, lies, gas lighting, fear, and uncertainty. Of course, the critical problem with these right wing echo chambers is that many right wing extremists is to “own the libs”. By going to these right wing echo chambers, anyone who doesn’t share these far right views have little interest in joining. When they do, they often get banned in the process. In so doing, it inadvertently breaks the cycle of hate. When you can’t directly attack anyone who isn’t a far right extremist, what’s the point? Thus, that is why they, to date, have all failed to some degree or another.

Of course, there is another significant problem with these so-called “free speech” networks. While they call themselves “free speech” alternatives, what they actually mean is speech that they agree with, not that it’s an “anything goes” network that was promised. So, when those platforms started banning and censoring people and their posts, it inevitably draws fire because the networks themselves are basically being hypocritical. Last month, for instance, users were being automatically banned for mentioning the January 6 hearings. It really is the opposite of free speech and an affront to the whole premise of these networks in the first place.

That’s the problem with being strictly about a single political issue with nothing else considered, problems and inconsistencies crop up sooner or later. With these networks, the emphasis seems to be “sooner”. Another angle in all of this is how these networks (again, billing themselves as “free speech” networks) are censoring content that contains nudity. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) points out, nudity and even some content considered “obscene” is technically legal free speech:

For example: GETTR calls itself a “brand new social media platform founded on the principles of free speech, independent thought and rejecting political censorship and ‘cancel culture’,” yet a look to their Terms of Service (TOS) shows that user contributions must not contain any “sexually explicit, pornographic” content. Similarly, the TOS on Frank Speech prohibit “sexually explicit or pornographic material” from being posted on the site. Social networks like Parler circumvent any wholesale prohibitions but require sexual content to be tagged as NSFW (Not Safe for Work), thus limiting user access and free engagement.

Most sexual expression, even that which may colloquially be categorized as “pornographic” or “sexually explicit,” is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which is, of course, the standard held out by many platforms as underpinning their commitment to free speech. Alternative social media platform Gab is explicit in noting that any “written expression that is protected political, religious, symbolic, or commercial speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution will be allowed on the Website,” and a brief look at the principles page on social network Minds shows that its content policy “is based on the First Amendment and governed by a community jury in order to minimize bias and censorship.” Yet, both Gab and Minds exclude legal sexual content from being posted or shared. And they are not alone in doing so.

When sexual content is restricted, the response is often one of apathy, as the censored content is perceived as either marginally illegal (so it should be disregarded), undesirable (so no one should care even if it is legal), or so frequently censored that it’s not worth protesting the restrictions. But sex workers, sexual freedom activists, and artists have experienced significant censorship of their legal expressions across the web, and the hypocrisy between calling for more free speech and consequently censoring sexual content is one that is particularly noticeable on far-right sites like MeWe and Rumble, which currently hold themselves out as free speech purists. But even there, individuals from non-marginalized communities seldom see or experience the censorship of these marginalized expressions.

Has this always been the case? Well…yes. In fact, the TOS of these “free speech” platforms are often more rolled back versions of the moderation on major social platforms like Facebook and Instagram, where the de facto blanket bans on nudity affects all kinds of users, from those posting photographs of a 102-year old Little Mermaid statue, to creators posting their artwork depicting uncensored nipples. Most major platforms have been prolific in banning nudity from their sites despite sexual and nude expression having broad protection in the United States and across the globe. In some scenarios, platforms have prioritized the interests of users over external pressure, such as when OnlyFans reversed its ban on adult content after significant pushback from users. Twitter and Reddit users, too, readily engage with content of a legal sexual nature and enjoy their right to free speech. Similarly, sex worker-run sites like PEEP.me and certain Mastodon servers take risks to defend sexual speech and defend the First Amendment right to free expression.

Nudity and sexuality is a tricky one to navigate from a free speech perspective. The reason why it’s such a tricky topic to navigate is simply because the censorship of such content is a very systemic problem on the Internet. Indeed, the reputation the Internet has gotten is that it’s for porn. That would be immortalized in a famous World of Warcraft meme that sourced the audio from Avenue Q. The meme was echoed in 2021 by Bo Burnham last year in his Welcome to the Internet video. While you can easily be given the impression that the Internet is a free for all, the reality is actually much more strict than you would think.

For example, we have a Wiki that we’ve been building for a couple of years now. We could, in theory, build a knowledge base that documents different forms of sexuality and directs users to websites that are considered safe. It would technically be a public service. It would demystify these sides of humanity and it could very easily be used to knock down stereotypes and lies in the process. What’s more, the motto “sex sells” would be true and it would easily be a traffic earner. All of this, of course, within reason (I’ll leave it up to you why I say “within reason” so I don’t have to use up any more eye bleach).

It’s such a simple sounding idea, why don’t we do that? Should we do that, we would actually run into numerous problems that would threaten the longevity of the site. For one, we would have to worry about whether or not our hosting provider would allow such content. For some web hosts, it is a blanket ban on nudity and pornographic, but otherwise legal content. Browsing through our own web host acceptable use policy, such content is technically allowed.

So, for some forms of pornography and nudity, we would, in theory, be in the clear. For other forms, things get rather sketchy. This is typically problematic for fictional content. At that point, you start getting into the realm of interpretation and grey areas. For one person that would, theoretically, review a theoretical complaint, they would understand context that we determined as acceptable, but another person reviewing the complaint, there might be less understanding and we could see our website shut down.

Even if we were to work something out with our web host, the next question would be whether or not our domain name registrar would allow us to host such content. In our case, there is a blanket prohibition on adult material. As a result, such content is a no-go with our current setup.

Even if we were to transfer our domain to another registrar that permits such content, the problems wouldn’t end there.

First of all, how does Freezenet get revenue? It’s primarily through Google Adsense. Google Adsense explicitly states that they do not allow pornographic material. If we hosted content, even just describing such material, we would risk getting cut off from Google Adsense sooner or later. Like other sites, we kind of need revenue to keep operating. As we observed in the past, finding an alternative to Google Adsense is actually quite impossible. So, it is pretty much a financial death sentence for the site.

Now, this isn’t the only source of revenue for Freezenet. We also have a Patreon. According to their terms of service, you can’t raise money for the production or access of pornographic material whether it is on Patreon or on your own website. Now, we wouldn’t necessarily be producing it, but we are defining such content. That… isn’t necessarily clear in the terms of service, but the wiggle room could theoretically be there that defining and linking to material is considered “access”. Either way, such information being given would be really risky for the longevity of our Patreon account as well. For us, it wouldn’t be worth the risk.

At that point, you might be thinking that just re-imagining the revenue generation and take donations at that point would be the way to go. This also has numerous problems associated with that. For instance, PayPal forbids pornography outright. What’s more, it is well documented that major credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard do have strict rules regarding pornography online.

What’s more is that this isn’t even getting into the added liability of our own countries laws. At this point, do we really need to even bother going that far given the other roadblocks thrown in our way? The real question at this point is, would we really be that much better off than your average Russian right about now? We would be, but not by much. So, all of that is a really big reason why a smaller site like ours only touches the topic from a news perspective. At every level, such content is a legal and TOS minefield. All of that over content that can be technically legal free speech in the first place.

In spite of all of that, it is certainly possible to host such material in the first place. It’s tricky and difficult, but it is possible. Still, all these barriers show that there is a reason why there aren’t as many players in such an industry as one would think in something as “wild” and “open” as the Internet. The barrier, however, is that you pretty much have to build every aspect of your network from the ground up – something so many other website owners that deal in much more “mundane” topics take for granted on a regular basis.

Of course, the so-called “free speech” networks did undergo building up this infrastructure in the first place. With grift money flowing like a broken tap, it’s unsurprising that such networks could be built. So, that is why it is actually understandable why an organization like the EFF is criticizing such networks in the first place. These networks bill themselves as “free speech” networks, yet, over and over again, they prove otherwise through their actions. In a technical sense, it is definitely a missed opportunity to actually follow through on the promise.

Naturally, we shouldn’t kid ourselves with the intended purpose of these networks. They were built with hate and lies in mind. They weren’t really built with anything else even thought through. It was a narrow “stick it to the libs” mentality that saw these echo chambers built in the first place. These networks were never about freedom of expression in the first place. They were about “speech I agree with” and “ban all the rest” – the exact opposite of free speech.

Still, this does highlight another important point: the Internet isn’t supposed to be about gatekeepers. It is supposed to be about resisting censorship. Why isn’t there a network of websites and services devoted to ensuring speech is respected in a safe manner instead of conforming to such restrictive cultural norms? If lies and grift can build whole networks, why can’t people who really believe in free speech build something similar? The closest we really have to this is Tor and cryptocurrency. At best, though, these have always been partial solutions to a much broader problem – to which the banning of nudity is a symptom of. This, of course, from the perspective of those who believe in an “anything goes” type of Internet.

Indeed, the EFF, despite the risque nature of nudity and pornography, does have a valid point here. It’s not really a surprise that these networks are choosing to restrict and/or ban such content despite being a “free speech” network. Still, they did build their networks on the premise of being a “free speech” network. They built their networks from the ground up, removing many of the aforementioned barriers. So, the flack from the EFF was justified. It’s unlikely anything will really change, but the EFF raises very valid points just the same.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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