Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Many questions abound as Blogger suddenly announces it will red-line blogs with sexually explicit videos or images in just 28 days

This morning, when I signed on to Blogger, I noticed a broadcast warning that, on Monday March 23, 2015, images or video with sexually explicit material will not be allowed on public or searchable blogs on Blogger.  The basic link with the exact wording is here.   It appears as of this writing that ALL Blogger users saw this when signing on this morning.
It also appears that specific users got individual emails from Blogger service advising them that their content may have this problem, as explained in this story on Vox-owned “The Verge”, which shows a tweet containing the exact wording of the email, here
I did not receive such an email on either of my two platforms (Gmail or AOL).  That would give me some reassurance that “I don’t have a problem” with any of the sixteen blogs.  But the story is disquieting, and has a lot of angles that seem unclear.
Blogger says that it will not delete content, but will mark the blog as private and remove it from Google search engines.  A private blog can only be shared with “whtelisted” users who are signed on, very much like a Facebook account where most material is marked viewable only by “friends”.   Effectively, blogs with “adult” content (limited in scope hopefully to visuals) can no longer be used as a form a broadcast self-publishing. Google says it will offer the ability to export the blogs to XML or other formats to put them onto other platforms. 
The Google policy does indeed appear to be limited to “redlining” content only because of what is images or videos – which might include third party embeds.  This apparently is also limited to what is normally viewed as “graphic nudity”.  It apparently does not appear to apply to material that some users would see as objectionable for cultural reasons.  Google also says there is an exception for material reasonably viewed as having “public benefit” for documentary, scientific (medical) or artistic purposes.
There are many other issues in Blogger Terms of Service, including copyright infringement (covered by the DMCA Safe Harbor takedown), harassment, threats, violence, and the like.  But so far these all seem to be covered on a case-by-case basis, when there are complaints from other users.
The “obvious” question is, how does Blogger identify the offending blogs?  One item mentioned in the discussions so far is blogs marked as “adult” in Blogger settings (link ).  Presumably these would be made private.  I have not marked any blogs as such (I’ll double check).  But if a blog is not self-identified, Blogger would have to rely on complaints from other users, or on some sort of automated process.   It is possible to identify some images based on watermarks, but any images marked by NCMEC would actually be illegal anyway (and could get the poster arrested).  
By the way, there is a twist. The Blogger content policy allows Blogger to mark a blog as adult even if it is non sexually-explicit in nature (see the links ).  But that scenario doesn’t seem to be covered by the announcement Monday, that seems more limited to sexually explicit images and video, if I interpret it correctly. This page covers other issues, like gratuitous violence or threats, in a manner that most  people would view as reasonable and necessary, especially given international issues.
Embedded (third party) videos could pose a risk.  On the movies blog, I often embed trailers, usually from studios if possible.  Most trailers, even for R-rated movies, are marked for “all audiences” so presumably these are OK.  But some independent films, especially those released mostly as VOD, could have R-rated trailers.   I usually don’t use these, but there could be a handful among the 2000+ postings.  Could this cause the blog to be unlisted as private forever?  A few trailers may have material that is “risqué” but not really perceived as sexually explicit by most viewers.  Generally, images and videos that themselves would fall within the “PG-13” area as Hollywood defines it would be OK.

It’s not quite clear what motivated the suddenness of this change.  Were there complaints from advertisers?  These standards already apply to Google+ and YouTube, so Google apparently wanted consistency.  Google+ TOS does appear to be a little stricter than Facebook’s or Twitter’s  
I do think that Google should answer some reasonable questions in the coming days.  For example, will there be an appeal process (as there is for spam)?  Will there be some way to be notified that a particular post (especially an older one) has a problem, if it is right on the edge?  I have no way of knowing (retroactively) that there isn’t an isolated post somewhere (especially in Movies, TV, or GLBT) that doesn’t cross the edge. I know that as a “whole”, there wouldn’t seem to be problems. But there is the “isolated tornado” effect.
Some of the issues here remind me of the debate over COPA, the Child Online Protection Act, which was struck down in 2007 (discussed here on Wordpress, link ).  One of the issues there was the notion of what constitutes “adult content” – in the real world, there is a sliding scale of variable maturity among minors as by age and circumstances (the “Smallville Problem”)..  Some progressively-minded efforts after that case recommended voluntary self-labeling (with metatags) of adult content.  But that appears to be what would get a blog blacklisted now, so this contradicts voluntary efforts that would serve the public interest.
There is a lot of panic and anger out there this morning.  The most hysterical story seems to be on ZDNet, here, by Violet Blue from Pulp Tech, here. ZDNet also believes that the shift in use to mobile apps has an effect on how service providers view content.  The Guardian (whatever Glenn Greenwald’s influence) has a more moderate story here. BBC has a story here and reports that in 2013, Blogger had prohibited adverts for adult websites, a measure that I vaguely remember but that had little impact.  BBC hints that the mechanism will be for Google to add the “adult tag” itself.  That would suggest that a blogger could check his or her profiles to see if the tag was added, but that’s isn’t clear yet.   Computerworld, in an article by John Ribeiro, also notes the “adult flag” issue marked above, which doesn’t seem entirely consistent with the new policy, link here.  Global News Network has a story which also discusses Wordpress and Tumblr policies for comparison, here
One can expect a lot more protests and comments, and hopefully there will be more clarification from Google soon.  (Tumblr went through this and dropped it.)  The lack of clarity as to how questionable content is identified is one thing. Another is the concept that content can be adult but not be sexually explicit in the usual sense – that seems immune now, but what about down the open road?
One issue is whether “free service” blogs will continue to be a viable way to broadcast content (as opposed to whitelisting on newer social media sites).   I have often considered reducing the number of these blogs, and migrating entirely to hosted sites, but so far all I have done is start two new “hosted” Wordpress blogs, where I probably have more control.   But broadcast self-publishing doesn’t seem to enjoy the support today that it did ten to fifteen years ago, before it would have to survive COPA and then SOPA (after surviving the CDA).  It’s been sheltered largely by downstream liability limitations (Section 230 and Safe Harbor).  But the social climate, placing more emphasis on the need for real engagement of people, seems to be affecting the current perception of blogging.   

Yes, the artwork picture for this posting is tame, deliberately so.   

Update:  Later Tuesday

Blogger does have some details on the Product Forums.  A user has to be signed on to a Google account to see these details, but the direct link is here.   A user should sign on, go to the Blogger Help Forum, and then navigate to all discussions.  A posting from Carles PG (two posts now) about a "Blogger content policy change appears".  The user may have to click an extra time to see the first posting before the second.    Apparently the emails went out to those who had interstitial (adult content warning) pages, regardless of whether there was nudity.  Blogger seems to suggest that self-identified adult pages can stay public if they don't actually contain nudity.  It's not clear yet how third party embeds are handled, or whether future warning emails can identity specitic posts or images when atypical on larger blogs.  
Users of Blogger should visit this forum frequently in the coming days for more details, which will surely be posted.  
There is some discussion on line of the vague term "adult content", as here on a webmaster forum. Note the passage of material that is "not for audiences" but then gives an example of a cartoon with see-through clothing.  Seriously, "not for all audiences" would dumb down pretty much everything if taken literally. Seriously, some verbal (not image) content is inappropriate for younger minors;  when I talk about sensitive issues (which is often), I usually maintain a certain tone of formality and distance to avoid creating "problems".  This problem got debated with COPA a few years ago. 
One tip in embedding or even linking to YouTube videos.  Try playing them from YouTube without being signed on.  If you get an adult interstitial (justified or not), consider using a different video.  What gets marked on YouTube now probably gives a fair indication of what Google would consider a problem. 

It's possible to upload and process video right to Blogger without embedding from YouTube, Vimeo, or other sources.  Maybe this is what the new policy refers to; one wonders if content that is accepted on YouTube should be automatically accepted on Blogger.  If am embedded video gives an interstitial when played on YouTube, couln't it be set up to do that from Blogger?

Update:  Friday, Feb 27 

The Google Forum for Blogger has been updated to show a deferral of the policy.  See my posting Feb. 27, and revisit the actual Forum (after signing on) as soon as possible for the latest update.  

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