No, You Don’t Have Free Speech Online

I recently read “No, You Don’t Have Free Speech Online” by Susie Cagle in PS Mag. (Susie Cagle is a badass.) In the article, she asserts that because social media companies are fundamentally capitalist businesses, their interests lie in increasing the bottom line rather than upholding our right to freedom of speech. Many people treat social media companies as their personal soap boxes where they are able to exercise their freedom of speech, but what we fail to realize is that these companies can and will delete users if it does not serve their mission statement.

I found this to be very interesting, mostly because I recently started a new Instagram account, and then it was deleted after two and a half weeks because of (surprise!) pornographic content. Granted, I violated Instagram’s terms of service, but it was fun to post titty pics while it lasted. Within my artistic community, there have been several other artists (men but also quite a few women) who have had their content deleted or their accounts deleted because they have posted pornographic content. Both Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram prohibit pornographic content, but sites like Tumblr and Twitter allow it.

When thinking about freedom of speech, most people take the allowance or the denial of pornographic content for granted, despite the fact that we possess a cultural double standard on when and where we allow risque imagery. Some spaces are sacred and free from overly sexualized content (such as Facebook), whereas other sites (pretty much every site on the Internet) are plastered with it. Watching my two and a half week old Instagram baby go down in flames, it made me wonder: where’s my freedom of speech when it comes to my pornographic images? (Which were, in case you missed it, mostly culled from vintage Hustler mags and 1970’s comic books. Sure, they were pornographic, but they did possess a certain artistic and historical merit.)

However, after I asked myself where my freedom of speech in terms of pornographic content is, I realized: no one is going to fight for the right to plaster disgusting sexual imagery all over the Internet. Mostly because it’s already everywhere, we’re already sick of it, and who really gives a fuck about missing out on yet another ass pic on the Internet. Maybe one of the reasons why Facebook and Instagram are so popular is because they’re heavily monitored for spammy and sexy content.

But, you guys…even if most people are okay with pornographic content being censored from their social media, it’s still just that: censorship. So, why are we okay with censorship?

Granted, the issue of pornography is quite a large can of worms. We can talk all day about Christian conservatives, the no fap movement, the fact that adult content is the driving factor behind innovation on the Internet, but rather than getting wrapped up in a moral debate about the role of pornography in our society, let’s get back to the question at hand: how much freedom of speech do we truly have, and how much freedom of speech do we truly want?

By signing off on the censorship of pornographic material, we are signing off on the censorship of our own human sexuality. Let’s not forget that on platforms such as Instagram, the content that you see is the content that you personally choose to follow, in addition to paid content. On Instagram, it would be fairly easy to create an 18+ widget for NSFW content. I know that one measly post on one measly blog is not going to sway Instagram’s stance on pornographic material. What is important to note, however, is that the majority of the accounts that I see deleted by Instagram are not purely pornographic accounts but, rather, artists’ accounts.

Working within a fringe community of artists who deal with sexual material, it’s shocking to see that the representation of the sexual within social media is largely frowned upon, even when presented within an artistic dialogue. Artists such as Clover and Stephanie Sarley have had their posts and accounts deleted. Which is why it’s important to address the issue of censorship: what gives the cultural arbiters of Instagram the right to say what is pornography and what is art? What do we do when those lines are blurred? And why are we okay with the censorship of art that makes the mistake of traversing into the realm of sexuality? It’s clear that we live in a society that would more readily stifle artistic expression in the name of sexual purity than allow freedom of speech even as it enters into the realm of pornography.

As Susie Cagle aptly puts it in her article, “The libertarian spirit and ideology that founded and fostered the Internet is, in many ways, the same one that gave rise to its rapid commercialization….Ultimately, we’ve traded connectivity and convenience for the original populist promise of the Internet.” It seems that the rapid commercialization somewhere along the line became coupled with an arbitrary, sex negative morality. Because somehow despite the push towards rapid commercialization, sexuality and sex work have been left in the dust. This is something that we saw with the raid on, and that point is best illustrated in Siouxsie Q’s article “What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex Workers in Silicon Valley.”  In her article, Siouxsie Q addresses the fact that tech’s treatment of sexuality in various iterations online is shockingly ignorant and flippant. Given that the Internet has a reputation for being a freewheeling space full of pornography and prostitution, somehow the mainstream Internet has continued to do what mainstream America does to sexuality as a whole: wipe it clean, force it underground and watch it erupt into crime rather than giving it a place at the table. As a Bay Area native, this strikes me as particularly ironic because the Bay Area has such a legendary reputation for being sexually permissive and sexually radical, yet somehow that aspect of Bay Area culture has failed to permeate the new tech boom.

So, it’s with this I ask you: where are our sex tech advocates? Whether we’re supporting sex workers in Silicon Valley or artists who deal with sexual material in San Francisco, where are the people who are pushing to create openness, safety and accessibility for these women on the Internet? This is a women’s issue, and rather than allowing tech to continue to trample yet another aspect of the local culture, we should hold tech accountable for serving and supporting these women and men within the community as well.