Facing the global audience: Flickr and censorship

The scene: Flickr permanently deletes accounts

There are three Flickr* censorship stories floating around the internet at the moment (there are ongoing Flickr censorship stories). *Flickr – which let’s users upload photos and videos – is owned by Yahoo.

One story is about photos taken down from a Flickr account (on threat of closing the account) for “offensive content.” That content: smoking.

According to the report on 3 Geeks and a Law Blog, Flickr told the user (a Spanish psychologist) to “Use your common sense to determine if your content is appropriate or not to a global audience … you must know that if we receive another report about your content or conduct, it is very likely to cancel your account.”


The second case is a user whose Flickr account was closed, after some back and forth with Flickr about whether she owned all of the photos she had uploaded. Thomas Hawk, who keeps tabs (and gets censored himself) on Flickr activities, reported “After paying for a Flickr Pro account and uploading photos to a stream on Flickr that had been visited over 150,000 times, Shéhérazade found that one day her account was in her words, ‘deleted without any reason or warning.’”

Thomas Hawk reported Monday on another case this week of a Flickr account being closed. She wasn’t sure if she was following the rules, so she contacted Flickr, who then closed her account. Her photo stream included “adult” materials, that were tagged as such, and were restricted from users running “safe searches.” Flickr staff later apologized, saying that the deletion of the account was an error. But as Hawk notes:

[W]hen Flickr deletes your account it really is gone. There’s no going back. It’s permanently deleted. Gone forever. There’s no undo. There’s no, “I’m sorry we accidentally pressed the delete button.” Not only are all your photos gone, but thousands of comments left by users throughout the site are also permanently gone. Same goes for images that they delete from your account, like they’ve done to me in the past.

The question: Can they?
Short answer: sure. Flickr is a private, for-profit company. They are under no obligation to protect free expression, although as we noted before, the internet is a growing, significant space for expression. But this space is privately owned (that might be problematic).

The phenomenon: The internet is, like, international.

As 3 Geeks highlights, Flickr is reaching “a global audience.” Faced with more conservative and restrictive governments, Flickr (and Yahoo) have to walk a fine line between providing a space for user-generated content, and meeting legal and market demands from other nations.  Violet Blue in Open Source Sex points out,

… Other 2.0 sites like Flickr, which bases its community on photo sharing, seek to give users the tools to avoid seeing anything they don’t want to see — and they provide a pretty complete set of wrenches for users to tinker their profiles into shape. Yet even still, trying to find a definition of how to moderate a boob is like finding a boob in the Castro (that would be me), and anonymous complaint systems are easily abused for personal agendas; it’s a fine line to walk, especially with a worldwide user base and the need to cut costs with automated systems.

Flickr’s parent company, Yahoo (whose rules Flickr members must play by), doesn’t make Flickr’s job any easier — and it doesn’t exactly have a good track record for not being evil when it comes to playing nice with other governments and free speech. Take a quick peek into ways to violate Yahoo’s terms of service and you’ll see that users can have their accounts terminated for violating laws in other countries. Say what?

The unanswered question: Which we end on
As platforms for expression continue to expand to the international market, how will these other market/legal/religious pressures impact the conversations possible on these platforms? We’ll be watching.

About Blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship

Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
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