Flickr and Censorship

Flickr have been having a rough ride lately when it comes to claims of censorship. From the introduction of filters to the banning from China and today additional filters in 4 countries based on local Terms of Service. As a product, I love Flickr, I’ve never had any issues with it. But the reality of working on an international product across multiple countries with differing local laws and social expectations seems to be hitting hard and not everythign has been handled well.

The Filters

Flickr used to have 2 options – your photos were open to everyone or they were not included in the search due to content or type of images. Filters were introduced in March in order to give people more control over what they see. This is based on a user self-assessing their photos as safe, moderate or restricted and also choosing their level of comfort in the types of images they see. When launched there was confusion about these 2 types of choices and there still is – people regularly pop up in the bug forum asking why images cannot be seen, not having got the message that filters are in place. There are also real bugs still in the system, with images appearing at the wrong time, such as when not logged in but being visible if logged in.

The filtering method has been seen as censorship by some, with passionate discussions taking place about what constitutes ‘safe’ and whose morals and perspectives set the baseline. Because what is normal and OK in one country may be extremely restricted in another. For me, I find it weird that some people find nudity in classic statues upsetting; the UK moved on from that phase after the Victorians 😉 But some do take this POV, which can lead to what is seen as misuse of the Report Abuse flag, either through their own lens of what is ‘proper’ or deliberately to create hassle.

The deletions and account statuses

There have been two high profile cases of images being filtered or removed. The first was of Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir. Her images were being sold against her copyright declaration, and the discussion that resulted on her Flickr pages was deleted. She received an apology, where Stewart Butterfield said:

The photo was deleted — again, mistakenly — because of the direction the comments had gone, which included posting the personal information of the infringing company’s owner and suggestions for how best to exact revenge. It is an emotional issue and most people were there to support Rebekka in a positive way, but some of the angry mob behavior crossed the line.

In Rebekkah’s case all was resolved and a wider discussion was held that helped modify some Flickr Policies. But then an over-enthusiastic application of policies happened again with Violet Blue whose whole account was switched to restricted by an admin before being reviewed and reverted back. (btw, if you are of a sensitive nature or at work, that link may trigger filters!) As Violet says:

This touches on a much larger issue that I think is the Achilles’ Heel of 2.0 (especially community and social networking) businesses. Trying to build a business about creating community while hoping to avoid making room for human nature. Sidestepping sexuality (Flickr), attempting to weed it out of community clusters (Tribe), or trying to pretend it doesn’t exist by blanket censorship (YouTube). Each of these responses punish users. And none of them work, and are a constant battle, and destroys relations between the businesses and the communities they’re attempting to serve (and make money off of). It also adds a lot of confusion to conversations about what businesses are legally liable for, what’s permissible and legal for individuals.

Flickr is not a closed group, it has to cope with multiple viewpoints – it’s trying hard and personally I think the filters are a great step, but errors are going to be made.

The Corporate Censorship

And now we move onto the bigger picture – actual censorship taking place due to country’s laws. First of all, Flickr was blocked by China
. There was and still is a large outcry in the forums, with people blaming Flickr on the one hand and on the other providing ways to work around the GFW so that people can still see images. All Flickr and Yahoo can do is try and find out why it is blocked and negotiate with the country.

Today, a new policy kicked into action:

If your Yahoo! ID is based in Singapore, Germany, Hong Kong or Korea you will only be able to view safe content based on your local Terms of Service so won’t be able to turn SafeSearch off.

By the timing of it, this appears to be related to the localisation of the service, as German, Chinese and Korean versions are all now available. Local versions mean you have to abide by local Terms of Service. From the German users in particular, there has been a large and volatile reaction, looking at the forum and images such as assbach’s. Unfortunately, the change co-incided with many of the community team travelling to promote their new localisation, to staff presence in the forum topics has been zero until very recently and there is still no formal response to what is happening, which just fuels the debate.

And as I get to the end of this, I find that Thomas Hawk, CEO of Zooomer, another photo service yet still a heavy Flickr user, has also done a summary of the situation and his feeling s about this. Thomas has been one of the more vocal critics of Flickr, but he does try and keep it more objective than some of the forum posters.

With all the changes recently and the general rise in the use of web based apps, Flickr have been gaining a lot more new users and will get more when Yahoo photos close. But the difficulties of scaling up, of adding filters, of localising, of coming into the corporate fold with a Yahoo login and the move to Yahoo wallet away from Paypal, all of these are slowly adding up to remove the feel good factor for many people who have been members for a longtime. Some of the special factors that made Flickr Flickr seem to be subsumed by the reality of running a real, global business and not a small friendly web2.0 website. I still love the service, but i think business reality is destroying a little gezellig corner of the web.

3 thoughts on “Flickr and Censorship

  1. Thanks. It’s interesting being in a country that practices censorship itself (always in the name of the children) when it comes to mass media in traditional channels but looks for a lot more freedom on the web. Hopefully it will stay that way. Your adoption of the proposal is great – I hope you can keep to it as you grow.

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