Flickr: Setting limits for online speech

What is free speech, and when does it cross the line into slander, defamation, or just general inappropriateness? It’s a question increasingly falling to the operators of social media sites, who must decide when to suspend and ban users for going too far.

The latest controversy around online freedoms erupted Tuesday, when Shepherd Johnson, a resident of Gum Spring, Virginia, claimed that photo-sharing site Flickr had erased his account on the site along with some 1,300 photos he had taken over the past two years, with no warning or formal explanation. Days earlier, he had posted an image to the comment section of an official White House Flickr page which depicted torture at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. He also left comments critical of the President’s support for a bill meant to suppress similar images from public release.

Instances like these speak to where Flickr parent Yahoo! draws the line between what is and isn’t appropriate for user-contributed content on the site – a process that’s far from black and white – and what forms of censorship it’s willing to mete out. Facebook has met with similar criticism for both taking down photos of breastfeeding mothers and refusing to take down groups of Holocaust deniers on its site. Banning or removing the content of some users can make others nervous about what they can and can’t post on the site. But refusing to ban content others find offensive may promote an atmosphere of anything-goes. Ultimately, these decisions have a big impact on users’ willingness to participate in social media, and these companies’ ability to turn a profit.

Questionable content aside, Yahoo’s policy of deleting entire accounts with no notice and no process for appeal may also unsettle amateur and professional photographers – many of whom pay for the service – who rely on Flickr to store their photo libraries in the cloud.

According to Johnson, a Yahoo! representative eventually explained to him that the graphic nature of this photo was the reason his account had been deactivated. He says the representative directed him to the site’s terms of service, which say that “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” and that failure to do so could result in an account being terminated. Johnson says the company did allow him back on the site and offered a $24.99 credit, the amount he was paying for an annual “pro” account, but he was told he could not get any of his photos back.

Yahoo! wouldn’t comment on Johnson’s claim for this post, instead pointing me to Flickr’s terms of service, a document it refers to as “community guidelines.” Spokesman Jason Khoury wrote in an e-mail: “In crafting the Community Guidelines, Flickr weighed the rights of the individual vs. the rights of the overall community, and built a system that would enable members to choose what they want to view.” Khuory says that the company employs a team to investigate photos or comments that have been red-flagged by users and determines whether to ignore incidents or suspend or ban members.

Flickr is, in fact, a vibrant community of photographers and photo lovers. “There are many people who practically live inside Flickr, commenting in groups and forums and pictures,” says Thomas Hawk, a professional photographer, long-time user of Flickr, and works at another photo-sharing site Zooomr. Hawk wrote about the Shepherd Johnson incident on his blog earlier this week. Deleting someone’s account causes them to lose not only their photos, but in some cases an entire online identity, he says.

“Yahoo in no way did anything illegal – it’s perfectly legal for them to [take down] anything they want,” says Hawk. “But I think as a matter of policy and as a matter of customer service that they owe their customers at least an opportunity to get their photos down.”

Johnson, an amateur photographer and self-described activist, says he has used Flickr as a forum to post photos and comments about political topics many times in the past. When he discovered that most of the photos on the White House’s Flickr page were littered with positive praise for the President, he wanted to inject some debate. “I thought it would be an appropriate place to start a discussion about politics,” Johnson says. “There’s this kind of gray area – is it owned by the White House vis-à-vis the American people and the taxpayers, or is it owned by Flickr?”

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