Tumblr Experiences Implosion Following Automated Porn Ban

In an effort to presumably get back into the good graces of Apple, Tumblr may have inadvertently made a great case against automatic filtering.

It’s one of the last things any social media platform wants to see: a mass exodus of their users. That’s exactly what has been playing out for the social network following a policy change.

For most observers, it all started with a decision by Apple. Back in November, Tumblr’s app got kicked out of the Apple store over concerns related to child pornography. From a report at the time:

Tumblr says that child pornography was the reason for its app’s sudden disappearance from the iOS App Store. The app has been missing from the store since November 16th, but until now the reason for its absence was unclear — initially Tumblr simply said it was “working to resolve the issue with the iOS app.” However, after Download.com approached Tumblr with sources claiming that the reason was related to the discovery of child pornography on the service, the Yahoo-owned social media network issued a new statement confirming the matter.

In its updated statement, Tumblr said that while every image uploaded to the platform is “scanned against an industry database of child sexual abuse material” to filter out explicit images, a “routine audit” discovered content that was absent from the database, allowing it to slip through the filter. Although Tumblr says the content was immediately removed, its app continues to be unavailable on the App Store. It’s still available in the Google Play store for Android users, however.

So, allegedly, in an effort to get back into Apple’s good graces, Tumblr made a policy decision: no more porn. That decision came earlier this month when they announced that porn will be banned as of December 17th. From Variety:

Tumblr, the social blogging service owned by Verizon’s Oath, is getting ready to ban all adult content: Nudity and other X-rated content won’t be allowed on the service starting later this month, Tumblr said in a support note Monday.

“Starting Dec 17, adult content will not be allowed on Tumblr, regardless of how old you are,” the note reads. “Adult content primarily includes photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content—including photos, videos, GIFs and illustrations—that depicts sex acts.”

Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio painted the ban as a move towards a “better, more positive Tumblr” in a blog post Monday. “We spent considerable time weighing the pros and cons of expression in the community that includes adult content,” he wrote. “In doing so, it became clear that without this content we have the opportunity to create a place where more people feel comfortable expressing themselves.”

What some people didn’t know at the time was that part of the policy involved automated filtering technology. This heightened concerns that the site is no longer a safe place for some people. Additionally, as many already know, automatic filters don’t really work. That reality hit Tumblr in spades as articles document how the filtering system either missed a whole bunch of content it was supposed to target or it flagged content that featured no content that was even banned. From Kotaku (Caution: some NSFW content lower down on the page):

Yesterday, Tumblr announced that it will ban all adult content starting December 17th. As users logged into their accounts, they have seen that some of their posts now have a red banner across them, marking them as flagged for explicit content. The problem is, a lot of these posts are hilariously far from being pornographic.

It’s pretty clear that these flags are being done based on an algorithm, and the algorithm is finding false positives. Here’s a list of things that got flagged: a fully clothed woman, a drawing of a dragon, fan-art of of characters from the anime Haikyu!!, art from the children’s book The Princess Who Saved Herself that the author of said book posted, a drawing of a bowl of fruit with mouths, a video of abstract blurs, Garfield.

I am sure that some porn got flagged as well, but a lot of what the algorithm flagged doesn’t look very “explicit.”

So, the filtering technology was so bad, it even flagged Garfield the Cat as pornographic.

In response, there have been discussion circulating the web that traffic to the site is plummeting. Something like that may be difficult to verify, though some pieces of data we’ve seen here on Freezenet suggests that traffic has been dropping for the site lately.

What is particularly interesting in all of this is how badly automated filtering performed. Instead of upsetting those who post adult material, now Tumblr is facing controversy from those who have nothing to do with the content on top of everything else.

Whether or not Tumblr intended it or not, the site wound up giving a fantastic example on why automated filtering of any kind of content is disastrous. Corporate interests have been pushing governments around the world to filter content related to copyrighted material. Many critics point out that such technology doesn’t work. A great example is the debate surrounding Article 11 and Article 13 which mandates automated filters for copyrighted material. If one were to have meaningful discussions, Tumblr’s experience with automated filtering is a great start.

As for the site, some are wondering if the site will survive. That really depends on the definition of survival. Technically, MySpace has, thus far, survived all the scandals that have plagued the site. Unfortunately for them, it’s nowhere near as popular as it once was. Some consider it dead and gone for years even though it is still online. Still, that’s not to say Tumblr’s viability as a major social media platform isn’t now in question at this point. At the very least, the confidence of the site is certainly being shaken right now.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.


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