Shuttering Emergency Otter and Emergency Ink

Chalking up another 2 victims of the Tumblrpocalypse

Content note: This post includes suggestive images of adult male torsos.

For several years now, I have run a Twitter and Tumblr account called Emergency Otter. It’s not pticly high-brow but it’s also not porn:

The Twitter feed is managed with a Tumblr queue — Tumblr has functionality that allows you to put a bunch of posts in a queue and post a set number daily, between 2 times-of-day. So long as I keep the queue populated (which I’ve not always managed to do, to be fair), Tumblr would send out a couple of posts every day, at 1300 and 1600 Pacific Time. I run a second account called Emergency Ink that does the same thing, but for tattoos rather than hirsute young men.

But, as people will presumably already know, Tumblr recently applied a ban on “adult content”. As their Help Center puts it:

What is “adult content?”

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.

Many people have written far better posts than I could about the sex-positive (but not necessarily pornographic) communities that had grown up and thrived on Tumblr. There are a lot of young people who found their identities and a safe space — a home — on Tumblr and, frankly, quite a few of them would almost certainly not still be alive were it not for those communities. But I wasn’t a part of those spaces; I can’t speak for them. And I do not pretend that Emergency Otter is serving some kind of higher purpose.

That said, the adult-content filters that Tumblr use are pretty poor. This isn’t surprising: even with advances in machine learning, software just isn’t very good at inspecting an image and reliably determining what it depicts.

And as I said in that tweet, this is the point where we should remember that “content filtering” (the technology that Tumblr is using) is proposed by governments for all kinds of purposes — copyright enforcement, porn blocking, blocking “extremist” content.

At Open Rights Group, of which I am a trustee/director, we’ve worked on issues related to this for a long time. Our Blocked project shows how Internet censorship is widely used in the UK to prevent access to several kinds of content. But Blocked also shows that it prevents access to many innocuous websites. And that blocking adult content with watchlists does not “protect” children.

Similarly, it’s common knowledge that YouTube’s $60 million Content ID system frequently labels legitimate works as being breaches of copyright (from NASA to classical pianists, birdsong to academic conferences). But the European Union wants to require them under law anyway.

Still, I digress.

Emergency Otter relies on Tumblr to function. And, as followers will be aware, I’ve struggled to keep the queue updated at the best of times, so puritanical new policies increasing the management overhead mean it’s not something I can make time for.

Especially given that their Help Center isn’t actually accurate. The policy proscribes “photos … that show real-life human genitals”. But I’ve had content appeals rejected on images cropped above the genitals, that were non-adult enough to be acceptable to Instagram:

That’s the message you get after a failed appeal, apparently.

Whereas Emergency Otter might sail close to the line on adult content (and some of the posts there were indeed outwith the new policy), Emergency Ink only contains images that are G-rated. But the quality of their filtering on Emergency Ink is no better:

So both accounts are going to be left to die; they’ll receive no further updates. It’s a shame, they were nice little communities — again, nothing like as important as many of the other communities that Verizon has killed with this new policy. But they were fun nonetheless.

Maybe one day people will learn technology isn’t going to save us.

Images are used without permission for the purpose of criticism and review under section 30(1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; images in tweets have alt-content crediting the original author. This article’s text is dedicated to the public domain under the terms of the Creative Commons Zero licence. Please feel free to translate, copy, excerpt, share, disseminate and otherwise spread it far and wide. You don’t need to ask me, you don’t need to tell me. Just do it!

 by the author.

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Owen Blacker

Owen Blacker

🇪🇺🏳️‍🌈🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿♿⧖ Mainly-gay, mainly-Welsh political geek; proud social justice warrior+trans ally. @WikiLGBT, @OpenRightsGroup, ex- @mySociety. he/him