WordPress Terms of Service, Censorship and Community

I like WordPress. A lot. I like that it is based on an open source platform. I like that it is independent, that is, not owned by a monstrously large corporation. I like that as a community it is generally very open.

That is why I’m concerned about a storm that is brewing over issues of censorship and community control among we WordPress.com bloggers. The controversy began when Janie and Kate noticed that their blogs had disappeared from tag pages. I’m writing about it here because, predictably, it began with some beautiful, erotic, sexual content. (Their blogs do contain erotic content. That’s not all they contain, but they do contain that, so if you’re bothered by that kind of thing, don’t click those links.)

The WordPress Terms of Service — you read them, didn’t you? Certainly you got your treat, right? — makes the following things clear:

  1. WordPress (And Automattic, the hosting service) don’t screen content before it is posted. (TOS Item 3)
  2. Bloggers must agree not to post illegal content like spam, obscene material, fraud schemes, etc. (Note: there is in the law a significant difference between obscenity and indecency. Obscenity is not protected by the first amendment.) (TOS item 2)
  3. Automattic (the host of all our content) reserves its right to remove or refuse any content that, in its “reasonable opinion, violates any Automattic policy or is in any way harmful or objectionable.” (Note: Harmful or objectionable are certainly very subjective terms, but we did agree to this when we accepted the TOS and put up our blogs.) (TOS item 2)

The content that started the uproar was not removed from the site. Instead, it was subject to a policy not described in the TOS: “reporting as mature.”

WordPress users all have the ability to “report as mature” any blog that they think, for any reason, is not suitable for a non-mature audience. This is, also, incredibly subjective. (You can also report a blog as spam.). The drop down menu on the upper right of your window, the one that says “Blog info” has an item called “report as mature,” and another called “report as spam.” The TOS is silent about how this process works. Is a single report automatically enough to get one’s blog listed as “mature”? Is the “mature” label applied to the entire blog or just to the “mature” posts? Is there a review process, or is this simply an automatic function of some reader hitting the “report as mature” link? These things are not spelled out.

I first noticed the “report as mature” system a while back when reading a question about the “next blog” link — you can read through blogs by just clicking the “next blog” button, and this can, obviously, lead one to stumble randomly onto content one might find offensive. Since WordPress is open to kids, some community effort has been made to prevent kids from stumbling upon “mature” blogs by removing those “reported as mature” from the “next blog” rotation. That much seems logical, even if the need to protect people from such material is debatable. But the “report as mature” feature also had an illogical effect, as the two blogs whose authors started this new discussion so quickly noticed.

The illogical effect of being reported as mature is that one’s blog is apparently unlisted from the tag pages that would be surfed by people looking for mature content. Let me back up.

Bloggers categorize their posts with “tags.” Tags are categories that bloggers assign to their posts to help readers find specific kinds of material. WordPress has a system where posts are then collected on pages dedicated to specific tags. So when you surf the “Photography” tag page, you see all the recent posts tagged with the word “photography.” Likewise, if a post is tagged as “erotic” it shows up on the “erotic” tag page. The “erotic” tag page has lots of posts. It’s clearly a kind of material that lots of people write, and that many want to see. So, why remove a blog reported as mature from the tag page where it should logically be found? This doesn’t make sense at all.

Of course many posts have multiple tags. A photograph of a nude woman might be tagged “photography” and “erotic” and “art.” If WordPress is actively trying to “protect” unsuspecting viewers from stumbling across erotic material, would it be wise to remove a post tagged “erotic” from any other tag page, but leave it on the “erotic” tag page? Perhaps.

I’d love to see the answers to these questions spelled out in an updated Terms of Service. For some reason, the WordPress folks seem to think that if they spelled out the process, people would “game the system,” and the process would be ineffective. But given that this issue has come up before, and has not been clearly resolved, I’d encourage them to make the process clearer. In this blog I post a lot of material that I tag with ‘sex.’ Some might find it suitable only for “mature” readers. I’d like to know what happens – ahead of time! – if my blog is reported as “mature.”

In the meantime, if you want to be part of the discussion, check out this forum and participate. That’s how the public square works, right?


Filed under activism, Art, censorship, community-building, Political Obscenity, public discourse, sex

16 responses to “WordPress Terms of Service, Censorship and Community

  1. Thank you for helping to bring these issues to the attention of the WordPress community of bloggers.

  2. Please see Mark’s explaination. Also remember that being labeled as Mature just keeps you out of the tag system. Your site is still indexed by the search engines and all that.

    When this site first started and the tag system and the next blog link was put in, we had folks tripping over mature adult blogs left and right. Something had to be done.

    I have some adult fiction work son my own blog here. It’s not labeled as mature. Gotta admit that middle ground is kind of hard to find on the issue.


  3. DrMike, thank you for the updated link to Mark’s explanation. It was referenced in the forums, but that link no longer worked. I’m glad to have the new one. Meanwhile, his explanation raises many more questions than answers.

    I’m not so sure a middle ground is really very difficult to find. I’d love to know some stats on how often blogs are reported as mature, how often the reason is sexual content, how often violence, etc.

    And I still don’t understand why blogs should be removed from tags that are clearly “mature” tags. Is the system unable to separate out the “erotic” or “sex” tags from other tags? Can blogs that are “mature” not be left on those tag pages where people go clearly looking for “mature” content?

  4. “Is the system unable to separate out the “erotic” or “sex” tags from other tags?”

    That’s correct. The current implementation doesn’t allow us to remove posts only from select tag pages – it’s an all or nothing deal.

    “Can blogs that are “mature” not be left on those tag pages where people go clearly looking for “mature” content?”

    That’s worth looking into.

    It seems that you agree with our basic idea of keeping mature content off of public pages like the wordpress.com home page, tag pages and the “next” feature? We’re trying to strike a balance between allowing mature content and not actively promoting that content to the many wordpress.com users who don’t want to see it.

    As an aside, I’m finding the accusations of censorship pretty shrill. We’re not censoring mature content – nobody is getting thrown off the service – we’re simply choosing not to promote it.

  5. I’m not sure that I agree about the extent to which “mature” content should be removed from public pages. The more I think about the “next” button, the more I think that if we’re in the business of keeping people from being offended, then that feature ought to just disappear. After all, who knows what will be offensive. And “mature” does not connote “offensive,” so much as it connotes sexual or erotic, so I can’t imagine that a lot of what might offend me (class bias, for example) would get flagged.

    As for the WordPress.com homepage, it seems to me that is where your public persona as a company is most at stake. WordPress should do with it as it likes. But I wish that the categories would be more honest. For example instead of “fastest growing,” perhaps “fastest growing G/PG-rated blogs,” or something like that.

    As for the accusations of censorship, I understand that WordPress is not censoring the blogger or the content. But they are preventing blog posts from being seen in logical places and that is a type of censoring: a censoring of lists, of pages, etc. Again, it’s WordPress’s right to do it. I read the TOS. I didn’t find anything there that describes this, and I wish it would be clearly outlined there, but I don’t dispute WordPress’s right to control the space.

  6. lifewords

    Thanks for the update. It would be a shame for a lot of excellent content to essentially disappear (regardless of whether it would still appear on search engines, the fact is that WordPress users rely on the tag system to find things of interest) just because it offends the subjective value system of one reporter. It concerns me that one or a few people could go on a crusade to seek out everything “mature” and wind up wiping out all the adult-oriented fiction, biography, and poetry on WordPress. Personally, I’d much prefer that the Next Blog option be removed, if that’s what’s causing the trouble (people stumbling on “mature” content), rather than taking people out of the tag system entirely.

  7. Dr. Mike,

    I am aware that my site is still indexed by the search engines and all that. My issue is that I have been hidden from WordPress community bloggers who are looking for the content I provide.

    “Mature material” is a small part of my blog, yet my entire blog is now invisible to those other bloggers.

    I also agree with Elizabeth that the explanation poses many questions and answers few.

    Additionally, I’m still upset about the arbitrary nature of the enforcement of the unknown rules, and the complete lack of notice I was given when I was de-listed for unknown reasons.

    I have received two emails, both posted on my blog, that say nothing more than my blog contains “mature content”. That’s rather vague. As determined by whom? What is the limit? How many bloggers “accidentally” stumbled onto my blog and complained? Why was this not laid out in the terms of service?

    If my posts are clearly labeled “sex” or “erotica”, that shows up on the category pages, even if the post is appearing in the “literature” section. If someone is looking for Disney stories, they are already informed that the story is not what they are looking for. I have never failed to properly label my material as such, and isn’t that exactly why the labeling system exists?

    As far as the shrillness of our cries of censorship go, please explain why blogs which took issue with WordPress’ actions are being de-listed, even if they have no mature content on them.

    If that’s not censorship, nothing is.

    Thank you for finally actually holding this discussion in public, where it belongs.

  8. I second this discussion being a great thing. My problem with the whole business of controlling content (which I 100% think that WordPress, as a business, has the right to do with its own space) is well…what is the target audience?

    It is impossible to control content to such an extent that no one will be offended. Some things are fairly blanket-offensive, other things are offensive to only a few, and still other things weirdly offensive to the very very few.

    If it is WordPress’s goal to be offensive to no one, I believe that this is wear the problem lies. I personally have problems with trying to be in-offensive to just the right number of people to avoid censorship claims and lawsuits. In a very naive fashion, I think that it is principle that one needs to stand on (yes, knowing that principle doesn’t always seem the way to make money).

    A clear set of consequences would help the individual bloggers. It need not be spelled out if you fear gaming the stem, just send an email that outlines the reasons for de-listing.

    I also agree with posters from above that an easy way to avoid stumbling on unwanted content would be to remove the “next” button. This would seem to solve more problems than anything else discussed.

  9. Elizabeth,

    Please do forgive me, with all the ruckus, I forgot to thank you for your kind comments about our writing.

    Thank you, we both look forward to writing some more stories, and hope you find them equally as beautiful and erotic.

    Kisses to you, from bo’fus.

  10. Pingback: The Pink Ghetto: More Euphemisms We Don’t Like : Sexerati: Smart Sex.

  11. playfulbent

    I don’t want to stumble across Christian propaganda, can I please have a “report religious” button? Or “drug usage” or “parenting” or some other random tag that happens to be something that I don’t want to see coming up?
    In my opinion I think the “next” button should be finding me the next blog with similar tags so if I’m browsing “erotica” blogs then I can just hit “next” and get another one. I don’t ever use the “next” feature as I seriously don’t want to see blogs on Motor bike construction or Christ or Islam or something else random that has nothing to do with my current state of mind *sigh*

    Having a button for reporting “mature” content is idiotic, you geeks in the wordpress office can just as easily tell the “next” button to skip blogs with tags x, y & z in them! I know you can so just do it!

  12. Pingback: You have the right to speak freely (in an increasingly limited number of spaces) « Sex in the Public Square

  13. Now that I’m no longer connected with these idiots and moved over to MT4, I can say that it is censorship and they do it a lot.


  14. DrMike, I’d find your comment more persuasive if you avoided the ad hominem stuff and gave some details about how censorship was applied. Simply asserting that it happened isn’t very helpful. If you know details I’d love to know more.

  15. Please note the user name I’m using now and note that it’s no longer the one I was using before.

  16. I know I’m late to the party, but I just found this posting through Google. I am a WordPress user, and my current blog which has been up for all of a week, was last night marked as “mature”, by someone. I feel quite disheartened as I was getting a lot of traffic through tags (around 50 a day so far) for a new blog, and now if I am taken out of the tagging system, I can see that I’ll struggle to get 10 views a day.

    I am not just keeping this blog for my own entertainment. and I don’t really see the point in continuing if I am hidden from potential readers, just for the sake of protecting the eyes of a few puritanical bloggers – I mean, come on… how many minors are hanging out on WordPress? I haven’t seen one blog by any person under the age of 17, and where I come from, that makes you above the age of consent.

    I understand being kept off the front page, but from relevant tags? It is an unfair system and I am considering leaving WordPress altogether if the situation is not ratified to some extent.

    Nobody considers my feelings if I don’t want to be confronted by bigotry, rightwing propaganda, or the vast majority of Christian bloggers. Give a little, WordPress… please.

    Thanks for raising the issue. 🙂