Images of Je­sus and su­per­heroes caught up in Tum­blr porn ban

The Guardian Australia - - Science / Technology - Alex Hern

Bal­let dancers, su­per­heroes and a pic­ture of Christ have all fallen foul of Tum­blr’s new pornog­ra­phy ban, af­ter the images were flagged up as ex­plicit con­tent by the blog­ging site’s ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI) tools.

The com­pany, which is owned by the US me­dia con­glom­er­ate Ver­i­zon, said on Mon­day it would ban pornog­ra­phy from its site – and de­fined the term as cov­er­ing any de­pic­tion of “re­al­life hu­man gen­i­tals”, or “fe­male-pre­sent­ing nip­ples”.

Once the ban comes into ef­fect on 17 De­cem­ber, any post con­tain­ing such imagery will be deleted. But in or­der to mod­er­ate bil­lions of posts in such a short time­frame, Tum­blr has turned to AI tools that ap­pear un­able to dis­tin­guish clothed from naked fig­ures, let alone tell whether a nipple is pre­sent­ing as fe­male.

The ac­tor and Tum­blr user Wil Wheaton posted one ex­am­ple: an im­age search for “beau­ti­ful men kiss­ing”, which was flagged as ex­plicit “within 30 sec­onds of me post­ing it”.

“These images are not ex­plicit,” Wheaton wrote. “These pic­tures show two adults, en­gag­ing in con­sen­sual kiss­ing. That’s it. It isn’t vi­o­lent, it isn’t porno­graphic. It’s lit­er­ally just two adult hu­mans shar­ing a kiss.”

Other users chron­i­cled flagged posts, in­clud­ing his­tor­i­cal images of (clothed) women of colour, a pho­to­set of the ac­tor Se­bas­tian Stan wear­ing a se­lec­tion of suits with no socks on, an oil paint­ing of Christ wear­ing a loin­cloth, a still of bal­let dancers and a draw­ing of Won­der Woman car­ry­ing fel­low su­per­hero Har­ley Quinn. None of the images vi­o­late Tum­blr’s stated pol­icy.

As he an­nounced the new rules, Tum­blr’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Jeff D’Onofrio, ac­knowl­edged the com­pany would make er­rors. “Fil­ter­ing this type of con­tent ver­sus say, a po­lit­i­cal protest with nu­dity or the statue of David, is not simple at scale.

“We’re re­ly­ing on au­to­mated tools to iden­tify adult con­tent and hu­mans to help train and keep our sys­tems in check. We know there will be mis­takes, but we’ve done our best to cre­ate and en­force a pol­icy that ac­knowl­edges the breadth of ex­pres­sion we see in the com­mu­nity.”

The site in­sisted it would still al­low non-sex­u­alised images of women’s nip­ples, in sit­u­a­tions such as breast­feed­ing or works of art, and said “artis­tic, ed­u­ca­tional, news­wor­thy, or po­lit­i­cal con­tent fea­tur­ing nu­dity are fine”.

But many users ex­pressed dis­may over the bans, ar­gu­ing that Tum­blr’s po­si­tion as one of the last ma­jor sites on the in­ter­net where adult con­tent could mix freely with more tra­di­tional so­cial net­work­ing made it a valu­able space for peo­ple to safely ex­press their sex­ual iden­ti­ties.

“It was a great place to mix art and adult con­tent,” one user, Nyx Ser­afino, said on Mon­day. “I could put out my per­spec­tive on things, post a song, and feel com­fort­able in my own skin. It took a long time for that to hap­pen for me.”

Tum­blr’s stricter rules ap­pear to have been prompted by the app’s tem­po­rary re­moval from Ap­ple’s App Store in Novem­ber. This fol­lowed the dis­cov­ery of child abuse imagery shared to the site.

Pho­to­graph: Tum­blr

A warn­ing on Tum­blr about sen­si­tive con­tent. The pornog­ra­phy ban comes into ef­fect on 17 De­cem­ber.

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