Flickr and the Pornography Problem

Back in May I wrote a post about Flickr and censorship after Susan Mernit published a post entitled “does Yahoo! ownership bring censorship.” Censorship is never a fun thing to talk about. In fact, I seriously thought about not writing this post at all. You see I love Flickr. And to point out or talk publicly about Flickr’s weaknesses or problems feels a little wrong to me. And it feels a little like airing dirty laundry. But on the other hand, I’ve always held the view that transparency and openness in the end are always best — and I don’t think that the censorship and pornography questions with Flickr are going to go away and in fact I think it is going to get worse in the future. I think Flickr is doing a good job at trying to address the issues at present but perhaps a few other things could (and probably will) be done.

Below is a Flickr mail that a friend of mine on Flickr (and no by “friend of mine” that’s not a covert way of saying me) said he recently received from Flickr. I’ve deleted his name and the identifying parts of the email.

Subject: [Flickr Case (case number deleted)] Re: Request
From: “Flickr Support”
Reply-To: case(deleted)
Date: Fri, 30 Sep 2005

Hi (name deleted),

I have made this photo private in your photostream:

Please keep it that way. Kids as young as 13 can have Flickr accounts and photos of genitals really need to be kept out of sight.


So let’s talk about pornography. In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart tried to explain “hard-core” pornography, or what is obscene, by saying, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it.” And thus a debate was born. Perhaps the biggest problem with pornography is that by the definition above it is subjective. One person’s porn is another person’s edgy art. One person’s “free speech” is to another person vulgar and obscene.

Flickr is an open community, but it is by no way the United States of America, nor is it bound to any legal constraint of “free speech.” Although Flickr is somewhat of a public community it is in the end owned by a corporation, Yahoo! and can do whatever it is they want. They can ban people, censor people, terminate accounts, do whatever they want. They are running a community and I believe strive to make the community the best it can be for everyone.

Anyone can sign up and get a free account at Flickr. There is no review of material before it is posted. Copyrighted material can be posted, pornography can be posted, anything that can be converted to a .jpg file can be posted. It is up to the individual user to set a privacy setting on their photos but by default anything you post there is public and can be seen by anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world. And although I’m sure Yahoo! and Flickr would prefer it not so, there are plenty of copyrighted images and what some would call porn up at Flickr at the moment.

The way that Flickr deals with the problem (and this may be a recent thing or perhaps just recently stepped up) is by sending out flickrmail like the one above. By turning your photo “private” it is then no longer available for view by the whole wide world, but is restricted to only those people who have marked you as a contact. People essentially then are “voluntarily” opting in to see your photos. This seems like a pretty good idea in theory to me. It says if I want to see edgier stuff by an artist or photographer that Flickr would deem questionable that’s my right. I can add that person as a contact and watch away. On the other hand if my young son is poking around on Flickr he won’t accidentally see something that might be offensive.

There are a couple of problems with this approach though. The first is that this places quite a bit of power in the hands of “Ana” or whoever else at Flickr happens to be the designated censor for that day. Now I am sure that what Ana turned private in the case of my friend indeed probably deserved it. This particular friend has a propensity for vulgarity and has published some truly tasteless images. It’s his personality though and kind of comes with him as a package — and for someone who just can’t be shocked anymore I think it adds to his charm in a weird and strange way. Still, I’m glad that my kids can’t see his uhh.. work.

But on the other hand, why should he be subject to censorship while other photos of questionable porn status remain uncensored. Recently at the Flickr Fiesta there was a disrobing of sorts. You can see it here (note, not safe for work). Personally I thought it was great. Here you have two exhibitionists sharing their work with the world in a very public setting of Flickr. I’m not offended in the least. I don’t even consider it pornography. And of course it’s a pretty popular photo on Flickr with over 2,000 views. But this photo is not private, it is public. Is it a double standard to allow a photo like this to remain public but to censor others? I would have hated to miss this one. I’m glad they left it up. But is it wise to leave the task of subjective censorship up to the Ana’s of the world? Will Ana censor photos that I would have liked to have seen? And even if she does is it really any big deal? Probably not. Still the subjective nature of the process today remains something to be discussed and explored.

And what about the discussion threads? Will Flickr delete speech that they find offensive in the community discussion threads as well? At present any group administrator can censor the threads in their group. Seems fair enough. But what if an admin declines to censor speech that Flickr finds offensive? Will Flickr then censor the speech?

The second problem has to do with the availability of free accounts. Even if Flickr does censor a member, if they are diligent enough they can just sign up for a new account and repost the image as public. The ability to create new accounts is endless and a little game of hit the peg here and it pops over there could be easily gotten into.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know. I wish it were that easy. It’s not. And Flickr is probably going about managing the community in the best way possible at present. It is probably smart to censor the most offensive images. It would indeed not be a good thing for children to see them and the last thing we need is some right wing congressmen somewhere getting a hold of one of them and turning it into a rallying cry for why open internet communities should not be allowed at all.

One thing I would suggest though would be to allow individuals over 18 years of age (and Yahoo! does something similar with their “adult” profiles) to see any of the private photos that have been censored. I think that I should be allowed to essentially opt in to all censored photos and not just those that are from my contacts.

I do believe though that as Flickr gets more popular and larger that the pornography question will need to be addressed in other ways as well. Last June Yahoo! got rid of their user created public chat rooms. Some felt that this was a bit draconian — but with the names of some of the chat rooms, and irrespective of whether they were “fantasy” based or not, they seemed to clearly be targeting children sexually. Yahoo! was threatened with the loss of big advertising dollars from companies who were upset (rightfully so in my opinion) about these chat rooms. Yahoo!’s response was to just shut the whole thing down. Essentially
censor everyone. Allow no user created public chat rooms. I’m not sure that this was the best approach, but again, I have no clue as to what should have been done. Similar to Flickr, Yahoo! chat is public and anonymous. Anyone can create and account or a room and shutting the whole thing down may have been the best approach.

It will be interesting to see how Flickr deals with the porn question going forward. It’s a sticky subject. Not an easy one for sure. And I hope they get the balance right and that they manage the problem in such a way that keeps the edgier stuff accessible and keeps true art public but protects kids at the same time. I think allowing “adult” designated Flickr accounts that could see all of the censored material would be a good first step.

I do also think that an adult designated account will be forthcoming based on an email that Susan Mernit attached to her post above from Caterina Fake (perhaps it is already here and I just don’t know about it):

“The thing about your post that was inaccurate was the idea that Yahoo was censoring Flickr. Now that we’re part of Yahoo there will be more liberal rather than more strict photo policing, strange as that may seem. Photos that are currently not available will once again be available behind a Safe Search wall, which can be accessed optionally by people over 18.”

Update: Flickr’s Stewart Butterfield responded in a comment below:

“I don’t think Ana’s determining the aesthetic/philosophical question what’s art and what’s porn, but merely what’s should show up public areas of Flickr.

But, to the larger point: the way we’re handling it now is no good and will only continue until we’re able to implement the better solution (which is coming).”

Thanks Stewart. Good to know that a better approach is on the way.

9 Replies to “Flickr and the Pornography Problem”

  1. (FYI zoto does not censor its members, so it seems.)

    what bothers me more is that “Ana” from flickr is now the one to determine what is art and what is pr0n…

  2. I don’t think Ana’s determining the aesthetic/philosophical question what’s art and what’s porn, but merely what’s should show up public areas of Flickr.

    But, to the larger point: the way we’re handling it now is no good and will only continue until we’re able to implement the better solution (which is coming).

  3. well… if flickr allows nude art to be posted in public groups, but doesnt allow porn, then isnt that was the censors are doing???

  4. well, what really disturbs me about this whole thing is that I actually lifted the “offensive” photo straight out of Terry Richardson’s Terryworld. This book is readily available from amazon and other general purpose bookshops, and is considered to be a photographic art book.

    the fact that flickr now imposes more strenuous censorship standards than Amazon or Barnes and Noble is a scary thing

  5. What I think is missing from the analysis of the possible solutions of the problem is: why not let the user decide what is lecit / not lecit to be seen from everybody?

    I understand that the application of this solution may not be easy but this is the direction we all should hope the web moves into. It would be intresting also to better understand how (and if) the “Flag this photo as may offend” thig works: it shoud be a good starting point to work on this problem.

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