Bronze breasts and Facebook censorship

Facebook, like other major social services, tends to over-censor even when there's nothing naughty

One of the biggest problems for companies offering free social media services is that in order to gather as big an audience as possible they have to be casual about verifying the identity of their users.

And therein lies a whole heap of problems. For example, the legal consequences of underage users getting access are not trivial so many of these service resort to naive "Confirm you are older than 13" tactics in an attempt (so far successful) to avoid liability. But the underage user problem pales into insignificance compared to the problem of users posting "inappropriate" content. 

All of the major free service have "terms of use" agreements that prohibit various types of content and activities including spamming, data mining, multi-level marketing, bullying, hate speech, pornography, nudity, etc., etc. etc. 

Violate these terms and the services all reserve the right to suspend or terminate your account. For an example of such terms and conditions see Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, in particular see section 3, and Facebook's Community Standards which explains the terms of use in everyday language.

Now, while a social media service provider can ask users to abide by a set of standards they obviously can't simply trust them to do so and so there's an obvious need to police the service looking for content that contravenes the rules which is not an easy job. And that's where Facebook just fell flat on their face and became censors ...

In Johnson County in the state of Kansas, that bastion of freedom, there is the Overland Park Arboretum in which there is a statue. Said statue, titled "Accept or Reject," is of bronze and is a headless torso of a woman taking a "selfie" while clad only in ... well, let me show you the picture:

"Accept or Reject" by Yu Chang - photo by Flickr user 39_Steps

Not my kind of art but neither does it offend or otherwise enrage me. Not so the staggeringly misguided American Family Association (AFA) which supported a group of obviously overwrought Kansans in starting a petition to convene a grand jury to decide whether the statue was "obscene." At a cost to the state of around $35,000 a grand jury was indeed convened after deliberating concluded that the "sculpture in question did not meet the legal definition of obscenity." Kansas, that's your tax dollars at work. The AFA, not daunted by not getting what they want are, apparently, in the process of trying again.

This sorry tale was blogged by Lee Rowland, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, under the title of "Citizens of Johnson County v. Two Bare Breasts".

The blog entry was then posted to the ACLU's Facebook page last week along with a photo of the statue and Facebook did the obvious thing: They deleted the post. Yep, Facebook's policing system didn't approve of the post and the picture and, whooosh! It was gone. Then the Facebook doubled down and suspended the ACLU's account by blocking posting for 24 hours.

Lee Rowland commented:

We were flabbergasted; we hadn't tried to republish the offending post or the associated rack. So, just to get this straight: the ACLU's post on censorship was shut down-not once, but twice-for including a picture of, and a political discussion about, a statue standing in a Kansas park ... Facebook's notice told us that the post was removed because it "violates [Facebook's] Community Standards." While my blog did include a comprehensive slate of synonyms for "boobs," it was the visual subject of the blog-the image of the statue itself-that triggered Facebook's mammary patrol.

The really disturbing thing was that the notice (which you can see in Rowland's post on the ACLU site) offered no way to appeal the judgement through either a link in the notice or anywhere on Facebook.

The ACLU was able to do what the average Facebook user can't easily do and tracked down Facebook's PR people and got their attention. The Facebook people were responsive and admitted that "the post was 'mistakenly removed' ... and then 'accidentally removed again'." In fairly short order the ACLU's account and post were restored.

Rowland summed up the issues perfectly:

If Facebook is going to play censor, it's absolutely vital that the company figure out a way to provide a transparent mechanism for handling appeals. That's particularly true when censorship occurs, as it so frequently does, in response to objections submitted by a third-party ... More fundamentally, this incident underscores why Facebook's initial response to content should always err on the side of leaving it up, even when it might offend. After all, one person's offensive bronze breast is also one of Kansas' biggest current media stories.

It will be interesting to see what happens when I post this blog entry with the associated photo to my Facebook account ...

Your judgement below or drop a note to gearhead@gibbs.com. Then follow me on TwitterApp.net, and Facebook.

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