Civil Liberties

"Don't Forget the Children"

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I only smoke Reds

Flickr, the popular photo sharing site owned by Yahoo, took down Dutch photographer Maarten Dors' pictures of a Romanian teenage boy smoking a cigarette, arguing that it broke the site's rules for appropriate photos. Dors says he didn't intend to glorify smoking, but to document the living conditions in one of Eastern Europe's less prosperous countries. Someone from Yahoo put the photo back on Dors' profile, but another employee who was unfamiliar with the exception took it down a few months later. Someone else later put the picture back up, and it's still there, for now.

Dors' story is a reminder that ever-increasing usability has been accompanied by the de-liberalizing of user rights. Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University, warns against Internet users relying too heavily on applications and software over which they have little or no control.

Tony Curzon Price at Open Democracy sums up Zittrain's position below:

JZ's impassioned cry in the face of all these attempts to move problems into the realm of authority is to "give communities a chance."….If at every turn we acquiesce and allow the top-down "solution", the Internet will have demonstrated its "self-closing" property: the open system that shut itself down.

But what if Zittrain's community model still allowed for censoring under the guise of "filtering," and corporations assimilated the language of communitarianism? Below is Yahoo's response to the Dors case:

While mindful of free speech and other rights, Yahoo and other companies say they must craft and enforce guidelines that go beyond legal requirements to protect their brands and foster safe, enjoyable communities—ones where minors may be roaming.

Guidelines help "engender a positive community experience," one to which users will want to return, said Anne Toth, Yahoo's vice president for policy.

And below is an excerpt from the Flickr Community Guidelines:

Don't forget the children

Take the opportunity to filter your content responsibly. If you would hesitate to show your photos or videos to a child, your mum, or Uncle Bob, that means it needs to be filtered. So, ask yourself that question as you upload your content and moderate accordingly. If you don't, it's likely that one of two things will happen. Your account will be reviewed then either moderated or terminated by Flickr staff.

Also worth mentioning is that Flickr's guidelines, full of community references, seem flexible and open compared to those of another popular photo sharing site, Photobucket:

Prohibited Content includes, but is not limited to, Content that, in the sole discretion of Photobucket:

is patently offensive or promotes racism, bigotry, hatred or physical harm of any kind against any group or individual;

harasses or advocates harassment of another person;

exploits people in a sexual or violent manner;

contains nudity, excessive violence, or offensive subject matter or contains a link to an adult website;

constitutes or promotes information that you know is false or misleading or promotes illegal activities or conduct that is abusive, threatening, obscene, defamatory or libelous

Is Flickr, with its relatively mild restrictions, an example of a Zittrain-style community, in which users abide by a set of shared values? Or do these standards represent the "closing" of the Internet simply because the community is owned by a larger corporation?

Jacob Sullum wrote about Yahoo and censorship here.