In the hubbub surrounding this week’s acquisition of the blogging platform Tumblr by born-again internet hub Yahoo!, I thought one of the most interesting observations concerned the regulation of pornography. It led, by a winding p...
In the hubbub surrounding this week’s acquisition of the blogging platform Tumblr by born-again internet hub Yahoo!, I thought one of the most interesting observations concerned the regulation of pornography. It led, by a winding path, to a topic near and dear to the Concurring Opinions gang: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally immunizes online intermediaries from liability for the contents of user-generated content. (Just a few examples of many ConOp discussions of Section 230: this old post by Dan Solove and a January 2013 series of posts by Danielle Citron on Section 230 and revenge porn here, here, and here.)
Apparently Tumblr has a very large amount of NSFW material compared to other sites with user-generated content. By one estimate, over 11% of the site’s 200,000 most popular blogs are “adult.” By my math that’s well over 20,000 of the site’s power users.
Predictably, much of the ensuing discussion focused on the implications of all that smut for business and branding. But Peter Kafka explains on All Things D that the structure of Tumblr prevents advertisements for family-friendly brands from showing up next to pornographic content. His reassuring tone almost let you hear the “whew” from Yahoo! investors (as if harm to brands is the only relevant consideration about porn — which, for many tech journalists and entrepreneurs, it is).
There is another potential porn problem besides bad PR, and it is legal. Lux Alptraum, writing in Fast Company, addressed it. (The author is, according to her bio, “a writer, sex educator, and CEO of Fleshbot, the web’s foremost blog about sexuality and adult entertainment.”) She somewhat conflates two different issues — understandably, since they are related — but that’s part of what I think is interesting. A lot of that user-posted porn is violating copyright law, or regulations meant to protect minors from exploitation, or both. To what extent might Tumblr be on the hook for those violations?
First, some background for those less obsessed with intermediary liability. Generally, every site built on massive quantities of user-generated content faces a similar problem: potential liability for illegal things its users do. U.S. law addresses these issues differently depending on the underlying legal infraction. For most of them, Section 230 effectively immunizes the intermediary from any liability. If a user-generated post on Tumblr contains defamation, or an invasion of privacy, or harassment — as many porn blogs surely do — the company cannot be sued. Some intermediaries may take down such material voluntarily, but not under legal compulsion. (It is different in Europe, of course).
Section 230 does not protect intermediaries from liability for intellectual property infringement. Instead, that is the function of the notice-and-takedown regime of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Under the best and dominant interpretation of the law, Tumblr still has no obligation to police its user-generated content for unauthorized copies. Rather, intermediaries must provide a means for copyright owners to contact them and complain of unlicensed uses. Once notified, generally they must remove infringing content. Not surprisingly, Alptraum’s post suggests that most of the porn on Tumblr is infringing someone’s copyright. Yet these IP issues are quite familiar and not at all limited to sexually explicit material. As long as Yahoo!/Tumblr continues to comply with the DMCA, this shouldn’t present too serious a legal obstacle, no matter how little clothing people wear in user-posted photos.
(By the way, Eric Goldman has a very interesting ongoing project where he compares these two safe harbors and others to divine the ideal form of safe harbors.)
What’s unique about porn is another layer of regulation that Alptraum also discusses:
By federal law, anyone who create