Bloggers and Free Speech Advocates Worry About Internet Companies Cracking Down on Content


For three long days in February, Google blew up the Internet. Or, rather, the part of it that’s full of porn.

When the company announced a ban on sexually explicit content from its Blogger service, amateur pornographers started an Internet riot of sorts, crying censorship. Google’s shift marked a serious turnaround in a service that’s long been known for its devil-may-care attitude toward sex and sexual expression.

While Google backed down on its NSFW (Not Safe For Work) edict after “a landslide of feedback,” the unexpected backlash reopened old wounds. It’s not just the pornographers who are concerned about violations of free speech and free expression on social media. It’s bloggers who talk about everything from living a clothing-free lifestyle to adult circumcision.

Google isn’t the only Internet giant moving against online porn. Websites with user-generated content like Reddit and Tumblr have moved toward limiting such content. Some wonder if WordPress and others are headed in the same direction.

“Erotic expression is protected speech, and pornography is not illegal,” adult blogger and journalist Violet Blue wrote in 2013 when Google announced plans to delete all blogs containing “adult” ads. “The change makes me sad. The world is becoming a place where human sexuality and the varied businesses around it are out in the light, where we can decide for ourselves whether or not we are ready for it. Why isn’t Google keeping up with us?”

Slow, subtle changes to policy

Google has long been moving toward a crackdown on NSFW content. In 2013, the company banned Blogger sites with commercial or for-profit adult content. That same year, it banned adult content from its high-tech Google Glass platform. Last year, the company took it one step further, prohibiting sexually explicit content from Adwords, reportedly in response to pressure from conservative groups, including the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, formerly called Morality in Media. It also stepped up its restrictions in Google Play developer program policies to include “erotic” content.

About the same time, Yahoo-owned Tumblr tried to make its porn blogs inaccessible without very specific searches, but quickly turned it around with the ensuing outcry. Just last month, Tumblr added to its adult filter the word “torrent,” considered synonymous with porn.

“Tumblr’s filter is also hiding plenty of legitimate content, showing once again that Internet censorship is a slippery slope,” Ernesto Van Der Sar, founder and editor-in-chief of TorrentFreak, said.

WordPress allows blogs with adult content as long as they’re marked “Mature,” but the platform warns against posting “sexual materials that can be considered pornographic,” links to porn sites or sites with erotic services.

Porn or sexual exploitation?

The question of what is porn has been long deliberated; just ask the U.S. Supreme Court. While the courts have made seemingly endless rulings about what is decent and indecent, it’s really a moving target. What’s fine for one person is vulgar for another.

Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, said the bans aren’t about freedoms or rights. They are about eliminating sexual exploitation.

“Freedom of expression does not include the freedom to sexually exploit,” Hawkins said after Google announced its backflip

“Google was seen on a path to eliminate sexual exploitation from all its corporate sites when last year the company halted all porn advertising and eliminated all sexually explicit apps from Google Play. What are we to understand now, that some sexual exploitation is welcomed at Google?”

Getting revenge on revenge porn

Then there’s the whole issue of revenge porn — posting nude pictures without consent. Reddit’s recent ban on revenge porn prompted U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., to consider introducing a federal bill that would criminalize such images. As many as 20 states have similar laws.

Certainly it’s being lauded as a way to protect privacy rights, but it’s also eyed as a potential challenge to free speech. Opponents worry a federal law could have a whiplash effect, making any distribution of any nude images a felony. Such is the worry in Arizona, where revenge porn was recently criminalized.

“Arizona’s law clearly violates the First Amendment, because it criminalizes protected speech,” Lee Rowland, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said before the law was passed.

“States can address malicious invasions of privacy without treading on free speech, with laws that are carefully tailored to address real harms. Arizona’s is not.”