Google is cracking down on adult content again — this time, the target is its blogging platform Blogger. An e-mail sent out to users of the still-popular blog network announced that in 30 days, Blogger will no longer allow blogs that contain “sexually explicit or graphic nude images or video.”

“We’ll still allow nudity presented in artistic, educational, documentary, or scientific contexts, or where there are other substantial benefits to the public from not taking action on the content,” the message added, without specifying what any of these terms actually mean. Blogs that fail to comply will be made “private” — basically, inaccessible to the public.

This approach has become a favorite in Silicon Valley: rather than ban adult content outright and cause an uproar, the visibility of adult content is restricted to the point that adult content creators are simply forced to go elsewhere.

By default, Blogger blogs are public, which enables them to be discovered by readers and shared. Invitation-only access has been a privacy setting for users for some time — the only difference is that up until now, this setting has always been chosen by bloggers themselves, never imposed. Blogs that are made private on Blogger are, in effect, still accessible by the owner of the account and anyone who receives an invite code to read the blog.

One doesn’t need a Google account to accept an invitation, but only Google account-holders get unlimited access through an invite — invites to non-Google accounts expire and must be re-issued after 30 days.

This setting will impact the discoverability of a blog, destroying the ability of new readers to stumble on it while surfing similar sites or fora. According to Violet Blue, blogs that do not comply will be completely removed from search results as well.

“This is like offering a library where all the books in it are invisible to the readers unless an author is standing there and personally hands each reader a copy of their book,” Zoe Margolis told the Guardian. Margolis has been on Blogger for a decade. As a sex blogger, this decision affects her as well.

Too often, the words “adult content” are used as a euphemism to describe hardcore pornography. But hardcore pornography is not the only type of adult content out there. The technology industry hasn’t magically solved for the defined parameters that United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart hedged when he said, “I know it when I see it.”

Adult content is not well-defined and — at least according to Google — extends far beyond hardcore pornography.

Backstab

Derren Grathy, who started her blog detailing her fantasies around impregnation erotica four years ago, sees this policy change as a violation of users’ trust.

“We cannot possibly invite hundreds of thousands of people one by one,” Grathy wrote in an impassioned post on the Blogger Help Forum. “With no public access, our sites will wither from inattention and lack of new insight and comment. What will be left in mere months will be a collection of dead domains, desiccated corpses of once vibrant and wholesome adult communities laid waste by this policy decision. And I have no doubt that next year or the year after that the plan would be to quietly delete it all once the brow-beaten webmasters were too few in number to put up any sort of resistance.”

Splendid Ostrich, creator of the text-based erotic simulation game Newlife, keeps a development blog of Newlife on Blogger and laments the recent change.

“For individuals looking to explore and celebrate their sexuality with a like-minded audience, there really are very limited options,” Splendid Ostrich said. “Most of us lack the time, expertise, and money to set up proper sites, and our fans would have concerns visiting such small sites because they might mistake us for the aforementioned dodgy ones. Having a blog here on Blogger was a site people could trust wouldn’t be a malware-ridden nightmare. This used to be very important for those of us who view sexuality as something to be celebrated and enjoyed, rather than something dirty or shameful or wrong.”

Grathy agreed, emphasizing, “Adult content is more than just the porn industry shadowing blogs to support their already massive wealth. There are artists creating wonderful images and films striving to find an audience for their work. There are explorers that create repositories from scouring the internet to find common and rare erotica alike. There are authors and writers that use Blogger to advertise their work and provide excellent literature to many. [ … ] A slow but steady crusade has marched to rid Blogger of any who dare to explore the many fascinating corridors of human sexuality.”

Silent roll

Google has not disclosed how many users will be affected by this policy change, but Global News estimates the number to be in the millions.

Neither the official Blogger Buzz blog nor the Blogger page on Google Plus made any announcements about the policy update. The only sign that anything has changed are a one-sentence addition to the content policy that says “Adult Content: Do not distribute sexually explicit content or graphic depictions of nudity” and a single-line warning on the Blogger dashboard that reads “On March 23rd, Blogger will no longer allow certain sexually explicit content. Learn more here.”

The link directs to a post in the labyrinthine consumer help site that is Google Support — a post that would be virtually impossible to find unless someone followed the direct link. This is the second major policy change that Google’s social arm has tried to slip under the radar in the past six months. It marks a definite departure from the tech giant’s flirtation with direct user engagement.

Blogger’s last major policy shift happened in mid-2013, when it banned the monetization of adult content in its blogs. It’s possible that when Google killed Blogger’s money makers, the service simply became another money pit for the tech giant, but ZDNet columnist Violet Blue has a different take:

We were inclined to think the adult ad purge was about neither adult themes (curtailing censorship or speech, simply because it’s something Google or its controlling interests do not like) nor advertisement, but security issues with porn ads that contain malware.

With this move, Blogger — Google — isn’t eliminating blogs that are raking in porn dough, or exposing innocents to objectionable content.

Google is removing sexual content because it doesn’t like people posting it on Google’s Internet.

Google offered TechCrunch no comment as to why they had decided to pull the plug on being a service that “bases itself on freedom of expression,” but a Google employee by the name of Carles PG posted the following insight on the Blogger Help Forum, “As Blogger has evolved, so has our understanding of how important it is to have a more aligned approach to policies across Google’s hosted products (which include products like YouTube or Google+).”

Silence

Because the e-mail warning users of the policy update was sent to anyone who had marked their blog as containing adult content, whether pornographic or not, many arrived at the help forum confused and seeking answers. It was here that the worst part of this policy change became evident. Posts asking for clarification and guidance proliferated, with Google employees only occasionally checking in. Mostly, the task of explaining what was happening was left to “top contributors,” power users who get special perks from Google for manning the help desk for their respective Google products.

Posts from authors of blogs with topics ranging from b-list horror films to body building received the stock answer, “while I’m not sure about your specific case the general guidelines are here: Blogger Content Policy.”

It is apparent from the responses that top contributors were not briefed on the policy change or coordinated. When the authors of a romance novel-review blog reached out on the forum asking whether the covers of the novels they post on their site might get them in hot water, the response from a top contributor was probably not, but no guarantees. In another thread asking the same question, a Google employee showed up to reassure a book reviewer that her blog would be unaffected despite the racy covers.

Another power user told the author of a female domination blog that features images of the author’s naked backside being spanked by his wife that his blog would probably be able to continue without being made private. In a different thread, however, a top contributor indicated the Sistine Chapel belonged behind an adult content warning, though “most images of the Sistine Chapel will have artistic context.”

This unevenness illustrates the response concerned Blogger users have received. Google either failed or refused to make members of the Blogger team available to users, forcing top contributors to face the wave of user angst that accompanies any policy change without understanding that policy themselves. The result was an ugly overreliance on vague, stock answers that were copy and pasted in response to every question — sometimes repeatedly in the course of a single thread — compounding the overwhelming feeling of confusion and abandonment. It felt dismissive — and in some instances, it became apparent that it was dismissive.

“A lot of the noise, this week, is from people with large blogs, who don’t want to take the time to examine their content objectively — and from people who know what they have, and think that kicking and screaming will convince Blogger to relax their standards,” wrote Chuck Croll, a top contributor who goes by the name nitecruzr. He added, “Everybody who publishes a blog can be responsible for knowing what is published. If your blog gets too big to know what you have published, you deal with that when it happens.”

Croll isn’t a lightweight — his main blog has 2,147 posts — but it’s impossible to relate to creators of adult content when one lives in a perfectly divided world where the porn is clearly defined and separated from everything else. Only those who have been caught in the increasingly wide nets cast by the tech giant since 2006 understand what Blogger lost this week.

Unfortunately, the unevenness experienced by concerned users isn’t something that is likely to be remedied with a thorough briefing. Google is notoriously bad at defining — even internally — what constitutes adult content and what doesn’t. Google Play pulled a Reddit app because sometimes posts on that forum discuss adult topics or link to sites deemed to be adult in nature. Drawing the line between pornography and erotica was so hard, they finally banned erotic apps as well.

Image suspension on Google Plus continues to provide excellent examples of a complete lack of consensus. A user who shared nudes by the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz using Google Drive reported receiving a warning to desist from distributing any more pornography.

“What constitutes ‘artistic or educational’ for pictures and who makes that decision?” asked Cande, who blogs at Secret Diary of An Online Stripper. “How are we to know what Blogger/Google might consider artistic? Something that is explicit for one person might well be educational for another and what is considered ‘artistic’ is also purely subjective. I don’t think cutting cows in half is art, but it’s prized as art in galleries who exhibit Damien Hirst.”

Erogenesis, an artist in the newer genre of computer-generated erotic art, reiterated the uncertainty: “A lot of my work is also educational, concerning 3-D modeling of human beings (including their private parts). [ … ] ‘No open vaginas, no erect penises’ — those are rules I can understand. Because erotica is such a vague subject, I need clear guidelines like that.”

Robin, author of the blog about “sex for the thinking person”, echoed these concerns, “I was in the process of taking down any sexually explicit photos — even if they were illustrating a point in the content about how women are approached in porn or discussing how supposed feminist porn is not, actually, feminist […] I realized, in this process, that I don’t actually have a lot of sexually explicit photos and that I was leaving behind ones with nudity. Now I am beginning to wonder whether those will be deleted. What is ‘graphic’ nudity? Nipples? Pubic hair? Penises? Topless protesters? A naked dude running down the street being chased by the media and only revealing his behind?”

“It’s a fuzzy policy,” a top contributor lamented, thus providing the most honest response that Google users have ever received on the subject of adult content.

To quote Blogger user Alexander Anichkin, “It’s not that I am not sure about an occasional nude image on my blog, I’m not sure how sure is Google when defining explicitness.”

What we know

Erotica is still allowed on Blogger blogs. What is meant by “erotica content,” however, is anyone’s guess. Context suggests this refers to text-based adult content. Indeed — the new policy prohibits images and video, but makes no specific mention of written adult content.

Removing the adult content label on a blog will only remove the blog’s content warning — it will not make it harder for Google to find adult content on your blog if your blog has it. Google is a high tech company that has developed functional image-detection techniques. Removing that warning could do more harm than good.

Individual posts cannot be made private. Either the whole blog is made private, or it isn’t. Users will be able to appeal decisions to make their blogs private, but because we do not know whether Google will actually tell users which posts are in violation of the policy, it’s difficult to say if appealing a decision will actually be of any use. Additionally, do not know how many appeals users get, or what the process looks like just yet, only that it will be initiated through a Review button on the Blogger dashboard.

This courtesy will only be extended to existing blogs. New blogs on the network that do not comply with the new policy on adult content will simply be removed.

Jason Scott of the Internet Archive has said that the group will attempt to preserve as much of the Blogger cannon as possible, and encourages blog owners to do their part:

For more information on saving content to the Internet Archive, go here. For other options regarding next steps, go here.

CC BY-NC 2.0 US government

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