Cloud Service TOS Flip

In my recent posting about Glamour Bees[stderr], I mentioned that it’s a good idea to plan for what happens if your free photo hosting service decides to change their business model, as photobucket did. Astute Commentariat(tm) member Jenna K. pointed out that I appear prescient.

After years of cheerfully hosting all sorts of erotic content (please let’s not call it ‘adult’) Tumblr’s new owners, Verizon, have decided to change their terms of service and are no longer allowing certain types of material: nipples, genitalia, stuff like that.

[ars]  Nowadays, pornography represents a substantial element of Tumblr’s content. A 2013 estimate said that around 11 percent of the site’s 200,000 most-visited domains were porn, and some 22 percent of inbound links were from adult sites.

If you, hypothetically, had spent years curating a gallery of your art and that art involves “female-presenting nipples” then you’re suddenly going to have to re-create your work elsewhere. You’ll also have to re-establish your digital presence, etc. Suddenly, the ‘free’ hosting at tumblr doesn’t look like such a great deal. If you were disciplined about it, and only used free image-sharing sites as a way of ‘teasing’ subscribers to someplace else, then you were part of Tumblr’s value proposition.

History: Yahoo! paid $1.1billion for Tumblr in 2013 [nyt] in a completely pointless attempt to stay relevant to the internet at large; their sole value proposition was the user-base. When Verizon bought the shattered worthless remains of Yahoo! they got the shattered worthless remains of Tumblr, too. Tumblr turned out to be a bit of a pain the the neck, because suddenly Verizon had to manage user-provided content including copyrighted material and child porn. Dealing with DMCA takedowns and visits from the FBI is expensive and time-consuming, but it should be expected as part of the reality of running a social media site.

The problem is what’s known in security-wonk-ese as “supply chain risk” – I used to have clients ask me, all the time, “what about cloud computing?” My standard answer went something like this: “cloud computing is for organizations that already do not know how to do IT. If you plan on de-skilling some part of your process, then make sure you have a plan for how to avoid ‘lock in’ – which means you’re replacing IT staff with governance. Eventually, when they realize that they have all your data and you have no option to move, you’ll find that your pricing changes. If you don’t believe me, tell me one thing: does your organization track how much you currently spend with Microsoft?”

More History: in the early days of computing, IBM ruled everything and eventually beat out its main competitors (Control Data Corp, Burroughs) – it became the “data processing cloud” of its period and once everyone had their data in mainframes, the prices started to go up. After all, there was no alternative. IBM’s price-gouging and lock-in triggered “the mini-computer revolution” – initially departmental servers and workstations aimed at the engineering and management market (Digital, HP, Sun, Apollo, Sequent, Pyramid, et al) based on proprietary operating systems or flavors of UNIX. Those systems were complicated and required expert system administrators to keep them running, which made them much more expensive than they appeared. Meanwhile, a company called Microsoft was making a desktop operating system that was sold as super easy to use but it actually turned out to be one of the most expensive, management-intensive, pieces of crap in the history of computing. One of the reasons Microsoft became so popular in spite of its gargantuan flaws was (other than file formats) there was relatively little attempt to lock the customer in. That happened by default as all the various mini-computer vendors succeeded in putting each other out of business.

Lock-in and IT de-skilling are a fact of the technology cycle. What really weirds me out is that companies seem to accept this, and the lock-in trap, as though they are inevitable. What is going on? Management is deciding whether the cost of administration for in-house IT is higher than the cost of outsourcing it (excuse me: “cloud”) and they just assume they’re going to get screwed either way.

The value-proposition, such as it is, for sites like Tumblr, Yahoo!, Facebook, is “lock-in” too, except there’s not much lock-in, really. Is putting up with Tumblr’s change of TOS more or less of a headache than running your own site? The obvious answer, which nobody seems to hit on, is sharing arrangements. Suppose a group of sex workers wanted a Tumblr-like service – why not share it with a like-minded group? The same applies for other IT services – I have long wondered why several companies never banded together to use a common email system, before Google came along, and everyone seems to have decided to completely ignore common sense and regulatory frameworks, to put all of their valuable data into a search engine and advertising company’s hands. It’s insanity.

What’s really nonsensical to me is that Tumblr still has any value at all; I wonder if after this it will be like Myspace. Or Yahoo!

If someone is giving you a free service, it’s because they have other plans for how to “monetize” you. The degree to which they can “monetize” you will directly depend on how awkward they can make it for you to leave, or how valuable they can make your digital real estate. It just took me 2 minutes to delete my Tumblr account. I guess that’ll tell you what Tumblr’s worth.

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“They’re going to get screwed either way” – I think that’s what’s going on to a large degree. IT is hard. For the last few decades, vendors have sold systems based on the idea that “it’s easy” which is manifestly not true. The breakaway business success stories are the companies that used IT brilliantly, to dramatically offset its cost by opening new opportunities. Everyone else? They’re like the guys who showed up at the California gold rush a year after it started: they’re mostly going to feed the service economy that grew up to profit off of miners.

I like how Tumblr specified “female-presenting nipples” and I wonder if someone who wrote that remembers the image I posted on deviantart which was a mostly nude woman, with a man’s nipples photoshopped over hers. Naturally, I did not flag it as “inappropriate” because for some reason men’s nipples are not evil, shocking and horrible whereas women’s are. Or something. Who expects the christian sharia law to make sense? [deviantart]


  1. Dunc says

    Most people are no more interested in running their own IT services than they are in treating their own sewage – it’s just an unpleasant necessity that pretty much everybody would rather leave to somebody else. Hell, I’m in IT and I don’t even want to run my own machine any more if I can help it. Yes, it opens you up to other problems, but then you’ve got some pretty big problems if the local sewage handling system goes down too.

    I think a big part of the problem is that people want to treat IT like a utility, only without having to pay utility-like bills for it.

  2. says

    It’s true nobody wants to do it, but nobody wants it done badly.

    If our sewage systems leaked as often and as badly as our IT infrastructure, I’d hope we’d see structural changes in IT management. I’ve been amazed at how bad system administration has remained. It’s exactly the kind of thing computers are good at doing, it’s a huge and costly gap.

  3. kestrel says

    So I went to the site and it’s flagged as “adult content”. I had to prove I was over 18 to see the photo. Good grief.

    Yeah… the idea of the cloud makes me vaguely queasy because I’m used to storing my own stuff, not having someone else do it. The whole thing requires a great deal of trust. But then, so does the rest of civilization. It’s a situation of six of one, half a dozen of the other for me. I suppose a lot of people feel that way… “Let’s just go ahead with this, and hope.”

  4. says

    I like how Tumblr specified “female-presenting nipples” and I wonder if someone who wrote that remembers the image I posted on deviantart which was a mostly nude woman, with a man’s nipples photoshopped over hers.

    I really liked that photo of yours. The concept was cool. That being said, I doubt that “female-presenting nipples” have anything to do with your photo or even any other photographers intentionally creating images that mock this silly notion. This problem pops up on a regular basis on its own.

    When I read words “female-presenting nipples,” I first thought about trans people. How their chest looks like doesn’t always align with what is written in their passport. Often it doesn’t even align with how the rest of their body looks like. For example, after hormones but before the chest surgery, you can have a trans guy with a beard and female-presenting nipples. Heck, you can even have a trans guy with a beard and who is pregnant or even breastfeeding a baby.

    Then there are also those people who just look in a specific way. Some women have naturally flat chests. Some guys have visible boobs (either because of gynecomastia or simply because they are overweight).

    Then there’s also this photo The model Andrej Pejic is male. For this image his hair and face are intentionally styled to look feminine. And this photo actually got censored, because he looks like a woman and there’s nothing covering his chest. Whoops!

    And then there’s also this story—

    This whole problem is a big mess and a hot potato for various websites.

    By the way, I’m really annoyed by the nipple double standard. I love swimming. Yet last summer I couldn’t go anywhere else besides nudist beaches. I prefer to wear male clothes. Wearing male swim trunks would be fine with me. Yet the society forbids me from doing so, in addition to the male swim trunks I already own I’m also obliged to cover up my chest. The problem—in order to do so, I would have to wear female clothes, because there is no swimwear for covering up male chests. Thus I’m exiled to nudist beaches, those are the only places where I don’t have any problems with the dress code (I couldn’t care less about people seeing me naked anyway).

  5. Dunc says

    What exactly are we talking about when we’re saying things like “running your own site” (Marcus in the OP) or “storing my own stuff” (kestrel @ #3)? OK, if you’re just talking storage, you’re probably talking about an actual disk in an actual machine that’s actually in your possession, but if you’re “running your own site”, do you mean hosting your own site? I’m guessing not, since you (Marcus) talked about using a hosting service in that earlier post… In which case, you’re still in the cloud – just in a way that people got used to before they started calling it “the cloud”.

    It’s weird – I see people getting all het up about “the cloud”, but shared hosting has been around forever (OK, “internet forever”, anyway). What’s the difference? How many of us cut our teeth on shared computing resources back in the Usenet days?

    There was a period when I was actually hosting my own site (and mail server, and news server) on a box under my desk. It was a pain in the arse, and I never want to go back to that again. Like I say, I’m no longer interested in even owning a physical machine if I can get away with it – I’d be perfectly happy with a thin client remoting to an Azure VM, if only i could be arsed to set it up and work out the kinks. USB port forwarding still isn’t great, last time I checked…

  6. says

    You’re right – the concept of “owning a machine” is pretty squishy. What I think we are talking about is roughly covered under governance – the completeness of our control over a resource. I can convince myself I “own” my data if I have 3 copies, 2 of which I control and 1 at Amazon cloud – but good governance would also mean I had a plausible reason to believe Amazon would not pull a Facebook and change the TOS to say “we selectively disclose your data to our paid partners.”

    As voters in Wisconsin are finding out, you need to understand that the concept of control depends largely on who gets to update the rules and how and when. It’s the same problem, expressed differently.

    Dan Geer once defined “privacy” as controlling the release of data in time and to whom. (In other words there is no privacy) governance is then the pursuit of an illusion.

    Shall we give partial credit for effort?

  7. says

    I would be interested in your opinion about the google cloud.
    We run our small repair business using a google form which then posts to a google sheet.
    We then manipulate the form input by adding columns of status information, creating paste sheets for QuickBooks, csv files for postage labels, etc.
    They appear to not be a fly by night operation and seemingly not at risk for shuttering anytime soon.
    But I’m fairly confident you may think we are somehow “at risk”.
    Just askin……

  8. kestrel says

    @Dunc: In my case I’m talking about going from using like, manila folders to store prints and negatives of my work, to having it all online or “in the cloud”. I have to say it sure is convenient (so far) and saves a lot of space. Digital cameras have come a long way and the one I have now is far superior to the film camera I used to have. So it’s a great thing, but it makes me nervous about the photos of my work: I just hope the internet keeps existing and that I keep having access to my data.

    Although, if the internet were to disappear, or get taken over or sold or whatever, photos of my work would probably be useless anyway.

  9. Dunc says

    kestrel: In that case, yeah, you probably do want to think about backup. Most cloud storage syncs to a local copy, so that’s one level of backup right there. I have stuff on OneDrive that’s synced to several different machines, and the one really, really important file that I absolutely must not lose (my password database) is also on my phone, and on a USB stick on my key ring.

  10. Owlmirror says

    I wanted to look up how that name is pronounced, so I typed in “andre pej” in Wikipedia’s search box, and the top suggestion was “Andreja Pejić”. So there’s a name change as well.

    Her name is pronounced /ənˈdreɪ.ə ˈpɛdʒɪk/, if anyone else cares.

  11. jrkrideau says

    @ 4 Ieva Skrebele
    While you might run in to local prejudice (including the police who seldom know the law) the “male swim trunks” costume is perfectly legal here in Canada.

  12. says

    jrkrideau @#12

    While you might run in to local prejudice (including the police who seldom know the law)

    Even if laws are the main issue (I really don’t want to end up behind bars), this one still remains a problem. I’m no pushover, I can be argumentative, and I’m perfectly capable of defending my rights, but there still remains a problem—when I go to a beach, I’m there to swim, rest, enjoy myself, have a nice day off. I don’t go to beaches to have yet another argument about gender equality. Last summer I once went to a remote nudist beach. In the morning when I arrived there were no people nearby. Then a few hours later there showed up a couple who kept on their swimwear. Then there showed up another family with children who also wore swimwear. I wasn’t breaking the law being naked there; the place was officially marked as a nudist beach. But I still felt a little bit uncomfortable—I knew that these people probably won’t approach me and start lecturing me about morals, but at the back of my mind there still lingered the thought that my peaceful day off could end with yet another argument (and I didn’t want that to happen).

    I wish humans could finally make an “everybody wears whatever the hell they want” beach. One where people in burkinis and nudists could all get along and peacefully coexist without any conflicts.

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