New Terms of Use On Instagram: The End of Nudity?

Instagram have updated their Terms of Use, with the new changes happening from 20 December. The new Terms are a further attempt to deplatform nudity, sex, sex workers and any content that the platform might deem as sexual, in a further, worrying turn in Instagram’s policing of sexuality which risks hitting its most vulnerable users – all of this during a global pandemic due to which many rely on the app for their income. This post explains what I’ve been able to understand about the changes through the Terms themselves and through the (few) answers the platform sent me. It concludes by explaining why the new Terms of Use are a problem, and shares a petition and an email template to try and push for better moderation of nudity on Instagram.

My Previous Communications With Instagram

I’ve been communicating with Instagram throughout 2019 and 2020, starting from my first post about the shadowban, onto their apology through my blog for censoring pole dance and throughout the latest developments regarding censorship on the platform, from verification to post-#BlackLivesMatter promises.

I don’t have a “way in” with Instagram: I just email press@instagram.com, and use my journalism, public relations and academic research experience to try and get some answers from them. Their answers can be quite sibylline sometimes, and are just re-hashed community standards more often than not, but I did get an explanation about hashtag censorship from them in 2019 and I always try to give them a right to reply.

Following their new Terms of Use update, I went back to them again with the following email, to clarify unclear points and understand their stance.

New Terms of Use: My Email To Instagram on 20 November 2020

Hello

My name is Carolina, we spoke about IG verification over the summer and about the shadowban throughout 2019 and 2020. I’m an activist, blogger, pole dance instructor and academic working on online inequalities, and the author of this paper and this paper about social media moderation and the shadowban.

I’m writing because I’m very concerned about how Instagram’s terms of use are going to affect sex workers, pole dancers and performers on the platform. I’m hoping that you will be able to clarify the following points in as much detail as possible to help the community and networks I’m part of feel less worried about their livelihoods during a global pandemic, where the majority of our livelihood comes from online work – whether that’s teaching, performing or other activities.

I’ve split my questions in three themes, and they’re underneath the text in italics, asking for clarifications about specific statements. 

Terms of Use and Nudity Questions

Instagram/Facebook’s guidelines against sexual solicitation state that the following are prohibited.

Attempted coordination of or recruitment for adult sexual activities, including but not limited to:

– Filmed sexual activities
– Pornographic activities, strip club shows, live sex performances, erotic dances
– Sexual, erotic, or tantric massages

My questions with regards to the above are:

1. Will posts from previous strip club shows be deleted?

2. Will performers’ accounts be deleted as a result of this? (A variety of strippers in my network have been receiving multiple warnings in the last few months).

3. Will ALL strip club shows be deleted, even if performers are wearing bikinis / covering the body parts that are not allowed to be shown on Instagram and therefore complying with its Community Guidelines?

4. How will IG distinguish between strip club shows/ erotic dances and classes – like pole dance classes, or burlesque classes etc. – happening on dance studios or in cabarets?

5. How will IG distinguish between strip club shows and celebrities’ and singers’ music videos featuring strip club aesthetics (e.g. Cardi B’s “Money”)?

6. A variety of currently popular celebrities have made their name as strippers on Instagram. How do you think these Terms of Use will affect pop culture and mainstream culture in the future, if people like them are suddenly not welcome on IG anymore?

The guidelines also refer to:

Sexually explicit language that goes into graphic detail beyond mere reference to:

A state of sexual arousal (wetness or erection) or

An act of sexual intercourse (sexual penetration, self-pleasuring or exercising fetish scenarios

My questions on the above are:

1. How will Instagram distinguish between said language and, say, music and creative work using this language? E.g. will lines from the song WAP not be allowed on IG as a result? 

2. Will this language ban be applied to words in song lyrics playing in the background of videos?

Terms of Use and Deletion Questions

Instagram’s Terms of Use state that:

We must not have previously disabled your account for violation of law or any of our policies.

Does the above mean that a deleted account will now never be reinstated?

Account Questions

The terms also state: 

You can’t use a domain name or URL in your username without our prior written consent.

If you select a username or similar identifier for your account, we may change it if we believe it is appropriate or necessary (for example, if it infringes someone’s intellectual property or impersonates another user)

So my questions here are:

1. Do the above signify any change in how users can choose their username?

2. How can a user go about obtaining your written consent?

I’ve written the above questions because a variety of users that depend on Instagram as a platform for their monthly income feel under threat and unwelcome. I hope that, rather than simply answering with the Community Guidelines and Terms of Use we are already aware of and that I have pasted above, you will be able to expand on the questions I have to stop sex workers and other users from feeling they are being erased and deplatformed by Instagram. 

On a different note, if this was possible at all, I would love to have access to an “Insider” for direct communication – like in this case –  to discuss how Instagram’s policy can be adapted to better include the users it is so far deplatforming, as I have research and activism expertise to advise on this.

Thank you in advance and all the best

Carolina

What’s Actually New About The Terms of Use?

Instagram responded with their usual, oblique and unclear answers, but did clarify a few things. They told me the nudity guidelines that have been recently questioned by a variety of accounts (me included) were already in place. The new additions to the Terms of Use are the account deletion and management stuff – so the ones I referred to in the headings about deletion and accounts in my email.

As both Instagram and @aja.jane have pointed out, the nudity guidelines are nothing new – what might change is how Instagram manage the accounts they believe went against these guidelines. Plus, as the below screenshot of the existing guidelines shows, Instagram deem content a violation of community standards that can get us deleted / warned only when it meets both Criteria 1: Offer or Ask and Criteria 2: Suggestive Elements together.

However, often content that doesn’t belong to any of the above actions has been flagged and/or deleted and as I’ve written in my question… technically we shouldn’t even be able to quote WAP then?

What Happens To Accounts That Were Previously Deleted?

Instagram conveniently ignored my questions about choosing usernames, and I had to pester them about a line from the Terms of Use, which stated that for an account to remain on IG:

We must not have previously disabled your account for violation of law or any of our policies.

A lot of users whose accounts had been previously deleted rightly expressed fears this might be the end of their time on Instagram, but according to the platform’s answers it should not be the case. IG told me that disabled accounts will remain disabled, but that accounts that are currently active will only be disabled if they violate their guidelines – which translated for me and you should mean that unless you do something they’re not happy with, your account won’t disappear on 20 December, when the Terms of Use come into force. Of course, as I will explain further below, Instagram moderation isn’t always applied equally, so who knows if this will actually be the case.

Either way, IG reiterated that if someone believes their account has been removed by mistake, they should use their Help Center to see if they can get it back. 

Instagram Don’t Want You To Have Sex On The Platform… But How About Nudity?

Instagram essentially told me that they don’t want any nudity and sex on their platform, because they feel there are already many places online where those can be displayed and found. They added users should follow their Community Guidelines and Terms of Use, and that they should report those who don’t.

A Facebook company spokesperson sent me the following quote (which has been used in other media articles about similar issues):

“Instagram is a global platform for people of all ages and we have rules around nudity and sexual solicitation to ensure content is appropriate for everyone. We allow sex positive content and discussion, but we do not allow content that facilitates or coordinates sexual encounters between adults.”

Nevertheless, this has been the second direct quote the platform has sent me. Direct quotes are not something they do often: they tend to only allow me to quote them “on background” (so paraphrasing) and only sent me a direct quote when they apologised for censoring pole dance in 2019.

What’s interesting about this quote though is that it refers to “sexual encounters” between adults, and a lot of pole dancers, sex workers, educators and artists do not post actual sexual intercourse. Particularly since the platform has begun cracking down even on the mildest forms of nudity, too many of us are too scared to cross the line! So what do IG mean with “encounters”? They refused to clarify.

Many users simply post nudity – whether that’s through art, sex education, a pole class / club performance, meaning that this is not full nude – and direct people to other platforms for any sort of sexual activity. Instagram, however, declined to comment on the above situations, which makes me wonder: if the majority of people I follow who have been censored, deleted or threatened with deletion do not post sexual intercourse / sexual encounters, why are they being targeted?

And if Instagram have stressed that users who go against community guidelines should be reported, are they upping the ante on reports?

Why Instagram’s Stance On Nudity Is Problematic

Instagram’s stance of nudity, as delivered by their new Terms of Use and their ever-confusing Community Guidelines, is problematic for a variety of reasons.

First of all, nudity and sexuality are a key aspect of human life. Hiding them away as something shameful is puritanical and ancient, particularly since social media have played a huge part in opening up conversations about consent, sexuality, body positivity etc – and now they are taking that space away.

Worryingly, nudity and sexuality in Instagram’s community guidelines are grouped with a variety of illegal activities – in the same paragraph as terrorism. The guidelines state:

“Respect everyone on Instagram, don’t spam people or post nudity. […]

Instagram is not a place to support or praise terrorism, organized crime, or hate groups. Offering sexual services, buying or selling firearms, alcohol, and tobacco products between private individuals, and buying or selling illegal or prescription drugs (even if legal in your region) are also not allowed. Instagram also prohibits the sale of live animals between private individuals, though brick-and-mortar stores may offer these sales. No one may coordinate poaching or selling of endangered species or their parts.”

Instagram Community Guidelines

This is a cheap, appalling, unrealistic moderation mechanism, which can be solved with a bigger focus on human moderation and with more transparency about their nudity moderation mechanisms. Nudity and sexuality (when contextualised) aren’t inherently risky – and deserve human rather than algorithmic moderation.

Even more importantly, the users who have so far been affected by IG’s increasing crackdown on nudity – sex workers, artists, performers, activist etc. – are already in a vulnerable position due to the pandemic: many of them can only work or promote their work via social media. Deplatforming them will affect their livelihood, safety and mental health.

Finally, censorship of nudity and sexual activity isn’t applied equally on Instagram. For example, celebrities can post from strip clubs but a stripper posting a tamer picture might be deleted. Similarly, while many users find that harassment through unsolicited dick picks and/or abuse via DM isn’t taken down, their pictures depicting mild nudity are.

So What Can You Do About It?

I’ve put together an email template that you can use to email press@instagram.com and complain about their current policies. Find it here and feel free to edit as you please according to your experience, and share with your friends.

Together with some amazing people I’ve started a petition asking to reconsider their nudity policies. Please sign it here: https://www.change.org/instagramnudity.

Fill out this survey to share your experiences of censorship with us, in the hope to be able to present them to IG during my next meeting with them.

Instagram have so far refused to meet with sex workers about this, if we exclude the amazing work by Nyome Nicholas-Williams over the summer. So they are not open to listening to different approaches to moderation – something various researchers and I have written about, and that I’d love to be able to propose to them. Yet, until they listen to some of their most vulnerable users, Instagram will continue becoming a shopping playgrounds where we’re being sold ads instead of learning new things and of being challenged in our world view.

Update (29 March 2021)

An update on this post can be found here and in the below slideshow. Instagram are considering the idea of engaging with us to explain and get feedback on their policies.

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14 Comments

  1. […] targeting sex workers, it seems they have a mission to remove us from the platform entirely. Their guideline makes it very hard for us to be on the platform. Not even implied nudes are allowed or hands in front of the naked body. No explicit text, not even […]

  2. […] is her petition to Instagram, quoted below. I signed! And a post explaining the new terms as she was able to understand them. As always, the TOS are oblique and misleading, […]

  3. […] I love boobs” wrote Eilish in the caption. The drawing may have violated Instagram’s byzantine terms of service[3] for nudity, but nothing about it should have been controversial. Women have bodies. Eilish drew […]

  4. […] boobs” wrote Eilish in the caption. The drawing may have violated Instagram’s byzantine terms of service for nudity, but nothing about it should have been controversial. Women have bodies. Eilish drew […]

  5. […] I love boobs” wrote Eilish in the caption. The drawing may have violated Instagram’s byzantine terms of service for nudity, but nothing about it should have been controversial. Women have bodies. Eilish drew […]

  6. […] I love boobs” wrote Eilish in the caption. The drawing may have violated Instagram’s byzantine terms of service for nudity, but nothing about it should have been controversial. Women have bodies. Eilish drew […]

  7. […] boobs” wrote Eilish within the caption. The drawing might have violated Instagram’s byzantine phrases of service for nudity, however nothing about it ought to have been controversial. Ladies have our bodies. […]

  8. […] I love boobs” wrote Eilish in the caption. The drawing may have violated Instagram’s byzantine terms of service for nudity, but nothing about it should have been controversial. Women have bodies. Eilish drew […]

  9. […] the words of petition organizers, as of December 20, 2020, “Instagram have recently stated that they do not allow or facilitate sexual encounters between adults on the platform. However, a lot of the nudity and sexual references Instagram ban – e.g. strip club shows, […]

  10. According to Facebook, it’s fine to buy sex, but not to sell it … only women doing sextortion vs men show up in their queues. Are women ever victims of sextortion – no, romance scam. Women apparently are not victims to them, and only perpetrators for FAWG/CAWG. This is from fall 2019, during an AI/ML Signal project.

    Wouldn’t you rather have Services focused social media with oversight networks and special interest groups?

  11. […] Instagram announced updates to their Terms of Use in November 2020, a petition I started with a variety of accounts posting content related to […]

  12. […] sex workers, athletes and creators, I set up a change.org petition against Instagram’s anti-sex Terms of Use published in December. That petition is nearing 120,000 signatures, and if it gets to 150,000 it […]

  13. […] the FOSTA/SESTA laws in the US, to the Marriot hotel policy on sex work, Instagram changing its community standards, UK politicians pushing forth a Sexual Exploitation Bill, Visa and Mastercard pulling out of […]

  14. […] users. And while we can all agree that the ways in which many platforms censor us – from Instagram’s shadowban and account deletions to TikTok’s “implied nudity” ban – is discriminatory, flawed and confusing, well… the […]

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