Dozens of adult performers are set to picket Instagram’s Silicon Valley headquarters over guidelines about photos containing nudity. The inconsistency of the rules, they say, has led to hundreds of thousands of account suspensions and is imperiling their livelihoods.
Adult performers are leading the protest on Wednesday, but other users including artists, sex workers, queer activists, sex education platforms, and models say they have been affected by the platform’s opaque removal system.
Most users affected are not criticizing the platform for enforcing standards; instead, they complain that the Facebook-owned Instagram doesn’t notify users which standards were violated and provides little direction about how to restore accounts.
As Instagram grows – the service now has more than 1bn users and an influencer market of $1.7bn, expected to reach as high as $2.3bn by 2020 – those types of decisions affect the livelihood of a growing number of users relying on the platform for booking work.
Amber Lynn, an American porn star based in Los Angeles, said her account was terminated without warning or explanation two months ago. She had more than 100,000 followers.
“I sent [Instagram] multiple emails through my lawyer and they will still not tell me why they did it,” she said. “They do not answer you, do not give you an opportunity to correct any problems or even tell you what problems they had to begin with so you can avoid it in the future.”
Lynn said she had been building her portfolio on the platform for five years, and lost it without warning. Videos and images she had shared of her brother, who has since passed away, are now gone forever, she said.
“There was a lot of stuff that was not just content of me as a model and an actor but private, personal mementos that were lost just because they can take it with the flick of a switch,” she said. “And Instagram doesn’t care.”
Threat of a class-action lawsuit
Adult performers on Instagram use the platform much like anyone else: to promote their work, share photos of friends and collaborators, and communicate with friends and fans. But the Adult Performers Actors Guild, the largest labor union for the adult film industry, says Instagram has removed the accounts of more than 1,000 adult performers so far in 2019, most without explanation.
In a pair of letters in April, the group asked Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, to provide more clarity for account terminations.
“In the large majority of instances, there was no nudity shown in the pictures. However, it appears that the accounts were terminated merely because of their status as an adult performer,” James Felton, the Adult Performers Actors Guild legal counsel, told the Guardian. “Efforts to learn the reasons behind the termination have been futile,” he added.
Felton said the Guild was considering taking a “legal route” pending the company’s reply to the letters. Instagram declined to comment on the potential lawsuit.
Instagram says it has not changed its community guidelines in recent years but that the number of accounts suspended may have increased as the platform’s user numbers increased.
Users describe an inscrutable process to restore accounts
The account removals come as online platforms face growing pressure to moderate the content on their platforms following the rise of fake news, terrorist events tied to social media, and increased radicalism.
Facebook and its platforms, including Instagram, have long banned hate speech and nudity. But users say removals without explanation are on the rise, and the process to get deleted accounts reactivated is impossibly confusing.
The feminist visual artist Betty Tompkins was booted off the app on 26 April for posting an image of her 1969 work Fuck Painting #1. She told the Guardian the platform had taken down her posts in the past, but after sharing this particular image she found herself unable to log back in, without explanation from the service.
Friends, former followers, and fellow artists began a grassroots campaign to get her account back, imploring users to contact Instagram’s customer support team directly to ask the platform to let her return. By her estimate, hundreds of people personally submitted requests before her account was restored without notice or explanation four days later.
In the interim, she worried about how she would promote her shows and find work if she was banned permanently.
“I didn’t realize before how embedded Instagram is in my professional life,” she said. “I started to become very aware of how much they control this section of the art world. Here we have a totally unregulated, privately owned entity that has tremendous control over artists’ lives and ability to earn an income.”
Tompkins, whose art was once banned by customs officials in Japan from entering the country and who has battled censorship in other countries over her decades-long career, said Instagram policies had been some of the most difficult for her to navigate.
“Instagram’s policies are totally opaque, I have no idea how they enforce them,” Tompkins said.
When she asked Instagram why her account was gone, she received an automated response. Others who have had their accounts disabled say in emails with Instagram they were prompted to take a photo of themselves holding a handwritten sign showing a username, to verify their identities. Most say they were given little or no clear direction on how to return to the app. Instagram declined to provide further context about account restoration.
On 8 April, Rachel Clugston, a Los Angeles-based model with more than 37,000 followers on Instagram, reposted a lewd message she had received from a photographer, warning her followers and friends in the industry not to work with him. Later that day, when she tried to log into the app, she found her account had been suspended without explanation.
Instagram reinstated her access 20 days later, after she sent dozens of emails to the customer support team. She estimates she lost out on at least seven potential jobs and thousands of dollars during that time.
“I learned through this experience Instagram has so much control over my life and my wellbeing and how I earn a living,” she said. “I literally would have been homeless if I did not get my Instagram back. I don’t know what I would have done for work.”
Clugston said she would now avoid speaking out against abuse in her industry on the platform, for fear she would be censored again. An Instagram spokeswoman said the account was mistakenly shut down for a violation of its policy against nudity.
In May, the privacy-focused not-for-profit organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation launched a campaign highlighting account takedowns carried out by Instagram and its parent company, Facebook. The project, called TOSsed Out, tracks the ways terms of service (TOS) agreements and other rule systems are “unevenly enforced” across platforms by allowing users to submit examples of removals.
As platforms face more scrutiny over suspensions and removals, Facebook appears to be offering users more insight into the procedures. After instituting an appeals process, Facebook reinstated more than 450,000 pieces of content whose removal was appealed and 668,000 other pieces of content the company deemed had been removed erroneously. Facebook did not provide numbers for how Instagram posts and accounts were affected by the appeals process.
Sex trafficking bill changes the online landscape
Some users affected by the nudity guidelines say they feel Instagram has been cracking down on sexual content more frequently since the passage of the Online Sex Trafficking Act (Fosta) and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (Sesta), legislation meant to combat online sex trafficking that now holds platforms legally liable for the content hosted on them. Instagram said recent account removals were not related to these laws.
Daniel Saynt, founder of NSFW, a sex-positive private club and digital agency based in New York, said he had noticed accounts of his sex industry clients being shut down more frequently in recent months. His account for NSFW was shut down over an image that did not contain nudity but was “advocating for female pleasure”, he said.
“When you’re shut down there’s no system in place to get your account back. We can’t access any of our previous content,” he said. “It’s all lost and the thousands we’ve invested in building our audience are gone. Instagram is a utility at this point. It shouldn’t be able to impose biased censorship against women and yet it continues to do so.”
How Fosta and Sesta have affected Instagram’s censorship policy remains unclear, but the internet at large has shifted. Facebook recently banned “sexual slang”, Tumblr shut down all porn-related content, and Twitter allegedly “shadow bans” sex content, making it less visible in news feeds. In light of these bills, and their effects, Evans said it was more important than ever for sex workers to be able to communicate with large audiences.
“While people are working to appeal these bills, it’s important for everyone to understand how they affect us,” she said. “Many of us use Instagram to share everyday pictures of our lives – we are parents, we are tax-paying citizens, and most importantly we are human beings. We deserve a platform, too.”