censoring images

Many “community” sites allow users to upload pictures as part of their profiles. These pictures are often required to be non-pornographic (can’t let the kiddies see porn) and must be images of the individual profiled (can’t allow for copyright violation). I received an email today from a Friendster user who had her image removed from Friendster for being deleted as a violation of their policies.

This brings up an interesting issue. What does it mean for these sites to censor images? There are two categories of images that they must not allow: porn and copyrighted material. As we all know, porn’s legal definition is simply a judge’s statement “i know it when i see it.” Copyright is a bit clearer, but the question is how to determine whether or not an image is copyrighted unless the copyright owner notes that it is not part of the public domain and thus must be removed.

By choosing to censor images in the grey area, Friendster is putting itself in a really questionable realm. By monitoring this material, they are declaring what is appropriate speech and extending a public statement that they are responsible for what is on their system. That’s an interesting and precarious position.

For those who are interested, the image in question is a photoshopped portrait of the woman depicted in the profile. Upset with Friendster’s decision, she attempted to contact Friendster. To no avail. She wrote again. No response, no action. From her letter:

My primary profile photo is suddenly “not approved”. I’m very curious to know why. May I contest its removal?

“We suggest you upload a high-quality photo of yourself that is clear and current.”

The “Zombie” photo I was using until somebody (I guess with differing aesthetic opinions) reviewed it is both current and clear, and is most definitely ME, simply with photoshop color-enhancements.

The guidelines themselves state that “your photo may be as creative as you like.” Having read this, I see no reason why my main profile picture was taken down. I’m not exposing any naughty bits or using profanties. There are no children or animals in the photo, nothing forbidden by your site. Granted, it’s an odd photo, but it’s an expression of who I am, and it hurts no one.

Friendster’s lack of response to her objection to their policy is also quite interesting. Given that the site is censoring material, what responsibility does it have to correct its own mistakes and poor judgement?

This situation is a clear reminder of why trouble is brewing when an external source tries to maintain and “own” one’s profile, social network and presentation of self. In privatized spaces, is there such a thing as freedom of speech?

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7 thoughts on “censoring images

  1. Jen

    Oh, it’s so hard not to laugh about this one. This is exactly what I do at Yahoo — deal with issues such as this, and I’ve been wondering when the legal roosters would begin to come home to roost with Friendster. I could type for hours but just to summarize my predictions — you will soon see massive “clean-up” on Friendster as they struggle after the fact to kick off all of the copyrighted and skin-baring images. Next they’ll become much more stringent with the quality of the photos you post as they attempt to come in line with the mainstream dating sites. They’ll have to hire a team of people devoted to doing profile and photo reviews full-time, 24/7. If they wanted to be mainstream, it’s too bad they let this get out of control so quickly — doing this sort of work after the fact makes the site VERY unpopular with the users, and people will leave in droves once they feel their ability to be creative with their profiles is gone (just wait until they start implementing profanity filters and deleting untoward references). But if you want to make money, you have to bow down to the legal gods, and I can attest first hand to the ligitation risks they face by not doing so. Ah well. That’s what happens with fads — you get all the ‘cool kids’ bought in, which justifies your eventual appeal to the mainstream, at which point you abandon your “original” fans.

  2. Jen

    Oh, one more thing — the woman in question is likely to NEVER get a response. If Friendster was forward-thinking enough to hire customer response folks, which I’m sure they were not (after all, you only need engineers to get a company off the ground, right?), they’re already so slammed with emails she might hear from them in a month or two. Internet companies never, ever learn.

  3. DHo

    I deal with this problem, too. But I’m not waiting for it to be after-the-fact. I’m trying to grow a site with editing from the start so that the “original” users won’t abandon as badly as what’s happening to friendster.

    And as to the issue of freedom of speech in private spaces, there is none. That’s why it’s “private”.

  4. Mer

    Ah, the saga continues…

    I posted this to my Bulletin Board today:

    Date: July 25, 2003 4:15 PM

    Subject: Is this really necessary?


    Some guy from LA has started sending me
    half-intelligible hate mail, apparently because I
    told an equally unappealing friend of his to leave
    me alone.

    Here’s his profile:

    This is the sort of stuff I’m receiving from him:

    July 25, 2003 3:27 PM


    fu*n craz bi**h


    stupid sl*t bi*ch,makin my n*ts itch,i would be
    fu**** if lived within 72 blocks an had to smell
    your crusted a** stench,,,,,,,,,,,,***ch lookn
    like she got beat wit a wrech,wors than fresh
    sh** on your shoes she remonds me of dry pi*s on
    a park bench,cant help it start gagn and cuafn
    ba**n on the carpet,thought sumwherein the
    dictionary underAWEFUL,,,,,,,,,,,,I GROSSEST
    sh*t that ive ever seen,,,,,,,bi*ch u f**k wit
    him u gotta deal with me,


    Nobody from Friendster is doing anything about it.
    They’re fine with censoring my profile picture,
    but when it comes to blatant harrassment, it seems
    they’re impotent.

    Do what you will with this information.

    By the way, I had to “bleep” all the
    (correctly spelled) naughty words out of this
    message just for it to be “suitable” for the
    Bulletin Board.

    This site is really starting to f*** me off.

  5. Britain

    } a park bench,cant help it start gagn and cuafn
    } ba**n on the carpet,thought sumwherein the

    If “bacon” is a bad word, then I don’t want to be good.

  6. Dan Brickley

    I suspect this sort of thing is inevitable with any centralised service. FWIW the way we deal with this in FOAF (http://www.foaf-project.org/) is just by backing off from any attempt at centralisation, and leaving it up to folk to publish whatever they like.

    Here for example is a snippet of FOAF that (assuming I’ve got your info right from nosing around these pages; sorry if I garbled things) expresses the claim that the image depicts you.

    I’ll try posting markup here, not sure if it’ll get garbled by movable type. Let’s see…

    <rdf:RDF xmlns:foaf=”http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/”
    <foaf:name>danah michele boyd</foaf:name>
    <foaf:homepage rdf:resource=”http://www.danah.org/”/>
    <foaf:weblog rdf:resource=”http://www.zephoria.org/”/>
    <foaf:img rdf:resource=”http://www.danah.org/images/danah_sketchy.jpg”/>
    <foaf:depiction rdf:resource=”http://www.zephoria.org/images/merzombo.jpg”/>
    <foaf:publications rdf:resource=”http://www.danah.org/papers/”/>
    <foaf:schoolHomepage rdf:resource=”http://smg.media.mit.edu/”/>
    <foaf:schoolHomepage rdf:resource=”http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/”/>

    The issue of controversial images hasn’t really hit us yet with FOAF. If/when it does, we have a nice separation between publishers and aggregators, so you can still publish your FOAF even if one or more of the aggregators isn’t too keen on it. The closest I’ve seen to controversial content btw was http://www.amsterdambabe.com/foaf.xrdf but it’s only a matter of time, I suspect…

    BTW thanks for http://www.zephoria.org/snt/archives/000606.html
    …I’ve been meaning to reply, but also bogged down cleaning up the FOAF spec which should hopefully answer a bunch of these questions.

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