Silicon Valley's puritanical war on sex

In censoring sexual content, Big Tech is furthering the narrow sexual ideal of mainstream porn producers

Published March 27, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)

Sex workers and activists stage a protest outside Parliament in London as MPs debate a proposal to outlaw online prostitution platforms. The members of a cross-party group on prostitution argue that UK should follow the recent FOSTA-SESTA legislation in the US, which makes sex work advertising websites directly accountable for encouraging exploitation and trafficking. The protesters say that such legislation will make sex work more dangerous by forcing it out on the streets and removing access to databases of violent clients. July 04, 2018 in London, England. (Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Sex workers and activists stage a protest outside Parliament in London as MPs debate a proposal to outlaw online prostitution platforms. The members of a cross-party group on prostitution argue that UK should follow the recent FOSTA-SESTA legislation in the US, which makes sex work advertising websites directly accountable for encouraging exploitation and trafficking. The protesters say that such legislation will make sex work more dangerous by forcing it out on the streets and removing access to databases of violent clients. July 04, 2018 in London, England. (Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Adapted from "Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech under Surveillance Capitalism," by Jillian C. York. Copyright Verso Books, March 2021.

Before the mid-1990s, it was not so easy for a young person to find pornography in the United States. A youth might stumble across an errant Playboy, late-night scrambled pay-per-view ads, or an older sibling's VHS tape, but for anyone under eighteen years of age, porn—and for that matter, an unsanctioned sexual education—were all but inaccessible.

The internet changed all that. By the middle of the 1990s, sexually graphic images abounded on Usenet newsgroups and single-purpose websites, enabling anyone with a dial-up connection and a little bit of privacy to access them. Within just a few years, porn had become so ubiquitous online that the Broadway musical "Avenue Q," which came out in 2003, even dedicated an entire song to it, aptly titled "The Internet Is for Porn." The term "the great equalizer," once reserved to describe education, now rang true for the internet in the hands of porn consumers. As internet lore contends: "if it exists, there's a porn version of it."

Not everyone appreciated this equalizing effect. In July 1995, the cover of Time magazine depicted a small child at a computer screen, eyes wide and mouth open, with the word "CYBERPORN" just under his chin in capital letters. Underneath the word, the headline read: "Exclusive: A new study shows how pervasive and wild it really is. Can we protect our kids—and free speech?"

The feature story was based on a study by Martin Rimm, an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon, that had been published in the Georgetown Law Journal. Rimm's paper claimed that 80 percent of images on newsgroups at the time were pornographic in nature—an alarming figure, perhaps, had it been true.

The Time magazine article was disputed by experts and lambasted by the New York Times, but their criticism was of little consequence to lawmakers, who saw a crisis unfolding. In June 1995 (ironically, the same year that two of the most provocative films of the decade, "Show Girls" and "Basic Instinct," premiered), two senators—Democrat Jim Exon of Nebraska and Republican Slade Gorton of Washington—proposed an amendment to the Telecommunications Act that would later become the Communications Decency Act (CDA), extending existing indecency and anti-obscenity laws to the internet. The basis of their proposal? Rimm's study.

On June 14, 1995, Exon opened an address to the Senate with a prayer written by the Senate chaplain, which began:

"Almighty God, Lord of all life, we praise You for the advancements in computerized communications that we enjoy in our time. Sadly, however, there are those who are littering this information superhighway with obscene, indecent, and destructive pornography. Virtual but virtueless reality is projected in the most twisted, sick, misuse of sexuality."

The Exon-Gorton amendment passed, and on February 8, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the CDA into law, imposing sanctions on anyone who knowingly "uses an interactive computer service to send to a specific person or persons under 18 years of age or ... uses any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs."                                                           

Free speech advocates and civil liberties organizations were outraged and worked diligently to get the amendment overturned, concerned that the censorship provisions of the CDA were unconstitutional because they would criminalize First Amendment-protected expression.

Not only were they correct, but the act did nothing to stop the spread of online porn. Just a few months after Clinton signed it into law, launched, selling expensive ads and pulling in millions of dollars just by existing. The site's success inspired others, and soon there were dozens of websites raking in cash by selling outlinks—tracked clicks that generate revenue for external URLs—to porn sites.

But, as David Kusher wrote in Wired, "as the moguls of porn became the envy of the internet, the federal government conveniently got out of their way." In a landmark 7-2 ruling in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the CDA created an "unacceptably heavy burden on protected speech" that threatened to "torch a large segment of the Internet community." In the decision, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that "the interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship."

Although the CDA failed to become law, a remnant of it—often referred to as Section 230 or CDA 230 for its prior placement within the Act—survived. While it is the First Amendment that allows companies to curate the content on their sites, removing or leaving up whatever they choose, Section 230 is the law that distinguishes online intermediaries (like social media sites) from traditional publishers or speakers, and protects those intermediaries from civil liability for the majority of what their users share.

From that point, porn was free to spread online. By 2006, the global porn industry was worth $97 billion and the traditional porn industry was freaking out. "People are making movies in their houses and dragging and dropping them" onto free sites, complained the CEO of a payment processor for adult sites. "It's killing the marketplace." Cam sites abounded, rentals and sales of pornography DVDs dropped drastically, and pay-per-view orders rapidly declined, leaving the industry scrambling.

By the second half of the aughts, three revolutionary technological developments created the conditions for anyone to create and share videos: the smartphone (giving everyone a camera in their pocket), video-sharing platforms (the allowed anyone to be a "publisher"), and broadband internet speeds (enabling millions of people to quickly distribute captured video—and porn—online). And with that, the video-sharing revolution was underway. Within just a few short years, YouTube, Facebook, Vine, Vimeo, DailyMotion, and countless other sites offered a simple way for people to share homemade videos.

With the rise of YouTube came the rise of the pornographic "tube" sites: YouPorn, xHamster, Pornhub, RedTube (which launched in 2006, 2007, 2007, and 2009, respectively) and the like. Although there were plenty of sex-centric websites by the mid-aughts, porn quickly found its way into the margins of other spaces, including blogging and social media platforms.

Although a handful of platforms made the choice to allow porn, others—most notably Facebook and YouTube—chose to ban sexually explicit content from the outset. These companies launched at a time when porn was flooding all corners of the internet, and the market demanded something different. Journalist Adrian Chen, who was among the first to cover content moderation practices, speculated to me that "Facebook succeeded because it was seen as so clean and safe for young people" in comparison to MySpace. But neither platform had prepared to deal with the moderation of porn en masse, and both quickly sought solutions to ensure that their platforms were not inundated with pornography, lest they become undesirable to advertisers. Thus began the race to rid the social web of porn.

As it turns out, battling porn was not so easy for social media companies, and within a few short years, most had begun outsourcing content moderation to firms in the Philippines and other countries where labor was cheap. But no matter how much they invested in content moderation, purveyors of porn found their way in. In the summer of 2010, a site vulnerability allowed pranksters to inject YouTube with scripts that redirected viewers to porn. The vulnerability was fixed within days, but just over a year later, hackers gained access to Sesame Street's channel and replaced all of the videos with hardcore porn.

No site was immune: Facebook experienced similar flooding of graphic imagery; Wikipedia's co-founder blogged about the site's "porn problem," and Flickr faced angry advertisers who didn't want their ads turning up next to sexually explicit photos.

In the end, most platforms tightened up their processes in an effort to appease the angry public. The amount of porn on major platforms decreased, but so too did plenty of other things, such as adult nudity, LGBTQI+ content, and sexual health information. As it turns out, the best way to get rid of undesirable content is to cast a wide net ... no matter if a few dolphins get caught up in it.

Of course, finding porn on social media sites is not hard if you're looking for it. It's on YouTube, emanates from Facebook Live casts, and can even be located on LinkedIn. Social media platforms do their best to prevent it, find it and erase it, but attempting to do that is an endless game of Whac-A-Mole. The damage from these attempts, which all too often employ broad filtering techniques, is not to porn but to those whose art, identity, or livelihood depends on what platforms determine to be "adult" content. New computer vision technologies are being pioneered with the express goal of pre-flagging content to prevent content that AI suspects as porn from ever reaching other users.

But in 2018, a new law came into force that amended Section 230. Known in shorthand as SESTA-FOSTA, the combination package of US Senate bill SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and House bill FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) was ostensibly designed to fight sex trafficking online, and was thus supported by a dizzying array of celebrities and organizations.

Unfortunately, the law's broad provisions have had a deleterious effect on a wide range of online communities, from furries and fan fiction aficionados to sex workers. Almost immediately after the passing of FOSTA, the blogging site Tumblr, which had long served as a home for a range of sexual content, announced that it would be banning all sexual imagery. In the announcement, then CEO Jeff D'Onofrio wrote: "We've realized that in order to continue to fulfill our promise and place in culture, especially as it evolves, we must change."

But whose culture, exactly? For many years, and as Facebook's dominance grew, Tumblr remained a place where those whose sexual practice or proclivities fall outside of the mainstream gathered and—thanks to the platform's policy on allowing pseudonyms—felt safe in doing so.

Kali Sudhra, an activist, sex worker, and educator who works to give voice to sex and porn workers of color, sees Tumblr's decision as a direct consequence of FOSTA. The law, she says, is "outraging because we know that the best way to stop trafficking is to work with sex workers, not criminalize them." Tumblr's ban on adult content created a space where there is "no place for sex workers, women, trans folk, queer folk to express themselves."

While the effects of FOSTA have been felt across a spectrum of communities, no single group has been more heavily impacted than sex workers, for whom social media had in many ways made their jobs safer. This includes sex workers engaged in perfectly legal professions such as pornography or exotic dance, as well as those working in countries and jurisdictions where prostitution is legal.

Sex workers have reported that Instagram has removed their accounts and images, even when they contain no explicit content. They've documented instances of Facebook discussion groups being shut down for featuring sex work–related conversations. LinkedIn prohibits the listing of sex work in one 's profile, thus de-legitimizing it as work (regardless of jurisdiction). Payment processors from PayPal to Square regularly shut down accounts of sex workers, and nearly every online advertising tool bans sexual content.

"We know what keeps people healthy, and taking away people's ability to earn income or their access to community or their ability to advocate and mobilize for themselves has deadly consequences," says Danielle Blunt, a founding member of Hacking/Hustling, a collective of sex workers and allies working at the intersection of technology and social justice. "These platforms are killing people—that's what happens when freedom of speech is eliminated. Being de-platformed from social media has chilled my speech ... They have built such powerful tools that my compliance to their terms of service is more important to me than saying exactly what I want to say."

Censoring sexuality to such an extraordinary degree is guaranteed to have a long-term impact on society. By forbidding any potentially sexual content, tech companies are furthering the sexual ideals proliferated by mainstream pornography sites—ideals that most feminists have long considered harmful. And, by banning positive and realistic depictions of bodies and sex at a time when societal attitudes toward sex work, transgender individuals, and other sexual minorities are changing, Silicon Valley companies are complicit in ensuring that the status quo—that is, the limited representation of body types outside a narrow norm and the harm to body image that such standards cause—will remain.

If private companies are compelled by governments or advertisers to be arbiters of what parts of our bodies is "acceptable" content, the social progress of the past decades will slow. New technologies like virtual reality—a type of immersive technology being pioneered by companies like Facebook and Alphabet— are coming of age; if such new platforms are held to puritanical, censorious standards, then yet another mode for self-expression will have been diminished before it even fully gets off the ground. Identity is an intergenerational issue, and in order to give future generations agencies over their self-constructed identities, there exists a constant struggle to break free of the moralities of the past . . . and the present.

By Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist whose work examines the impact of technology on our societal and cultural values. Based in Berlin, she is the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a fellow at the Center for Internet & Human Rights at the European University Viadrina, and a visiting professor at the College of Europe Natolin. York's book, "Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech under Surveillance Capitalism," was released in March 2021 from Verso Books. 

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