Another Week, Another Flickr-Is-Evil Protest

This has been a bad, bad week in the Flickrverse. Earlier in the week (Tuesday, I believe) they rolled out their multi-language localization feature. This project was a huge undertaking, not just in terms of writing code, but also bringing staff on board in seven different countries and training them. But, this exciting new rollout had a very nasty side-effect: Users in Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong and Germany suddenly could only view Flickr in “Safe Search” mode. This means that any images marked “moderate” or “restricted” are blocked from view for users who are signed up through the local Yahoo! domain (such as for those in Germany as well as part of Austria and Switzerland).

Understandably, there has been outrage over this “censorship”. At last check, the topic in the help forum on Flickr had over 3,000 comments and topics have been added in countless other groups and more censorship protest groups have been created and there are hundreds, no, thousands, of protest images on the site. At last check Flickr staff have acknowledged that they realized that the language rollout would have some unfortunate consequences and that they actually considered holding off on including Germany in the rollout but at the last minute decided to move forward with Germany in the mix. So I’ve tried to piece this together as best I can, given what little information I can find (the signal to noise ratio in the forums is disappointingly skimpy), this is the best sequence of events I can construct:

1. A few months ago, Flickr added a content filtering feature known as Safe Search. This allows users to select the level of “safe” content they wish to view on Flickr. For instance, the much maligned kittens, babies and sunsets would be generally marked “safe”, while a partially nude person might be marked “moderate” and porn or especially violent images would be marked “restricted”.

2. The Flickr/Yahoo merge was more or less finalized when the Old Skool users (like myself) had to switch to using a Yahoo! ID to log onto Flickr.

3. June 12, 2007: The localized language roll out (and especially Germany’s very tough age restriction laws) had a head-on collision with Safe Search and users in several of the newly-localized countries found that they could not select any viewing mode other than Safe.

4. Part of the fallout from the collision is that Flickr/Yahoo! had to amend their Terms of Service to reflect this unfortunate change. Other than that quiet amendment to the TOS, Flickr was largely silent about exactly how significantly altered the users’ experience was going to be.

5. Protests begin.

Let me make something perfectly clear right here: IMO, Flickr made a very horrible mistake by not immediately and clearly communicating with the community that 1) the new localized rollout would mean users in four of the seven added countries would be restricted from seeing “moderate” or “restricted” content, and 2) they couldn’t roll back the localization feature once it was implemented but that they were working on a fix.

A lot of people didn’t like the Safe Search feature when it was implemented because of concerns that it would generally restrict users’ ability to view all Flickr content. I disagree with this: I see this as a way for users to control their own experience. If a user wants to see nudity, they can choose to do so. If a user would prefer to not be confronted with random genitalia (or have their children confronted with it) or graphically violent images, then they can elect to restrict that sort of content. (It is also handy for users peeking in on Flickr at work who don’t want to have a bunch of NSFW images on screen just as the boss walks by.) The best part of the Safe Search implementation was that Flickr staff were no longer compelled to mark someone’s account NIPSA for having “objectionable” content (which ranged anywhere from porn to non-photographic images). So, from the standpoint that it gives the individual user the control–and responsiblity–over what content they see and how they label their own content, I think Safe Search is a Good Thing.

Localizing Flickr in several European and Asian countries is also, I believe, a Good Thing. Probably the best reason for having staff in these seven additional countries is that users can expect a faster response time to questions and problems by going to their local staff and not having to wait several hours until Flickr staff return to the office. It also means that users can use Flickr in their native language and not be forced to use the site in English.

Sadly, the combination of these two independently positive features–with a sprinkling of regional laws added to the mix–was a recipe for disaster (how’s THAT for mixing metaphors at 1:40 a.m.???) As I said, my best guess is that by the time Flickr (and Yahoo!) staff realized this it was probably too late to do a thorough re-coding to work around the problem. Based on my casual acquaintance with several members of the Flickr staff, I have little doubt that the decision to move forward with Germany in the rollout was not made lightly. It may be that they thought a quick tweaking of the TOS would be sufficient to get them by while they took a look at the code and figured a way to play the hand they dealt themselves.

To ask me if I’m in favor of censorship would be like asking me if I’m in favor of child abuse. Of COURSE I abhor it! Of COURSE I’m upset that thousands of paid Pro users–who are adults–can no longer control what content they see on Flickr and of COURSE I’m frustrated that Flickr staff didn’t communicate this drastic policy change sooner.

However, what has happened on Flickr over the last four or five days sickens me. The forums have been flooded with protest threads, I’ve lost count of how many images have been posted of guys wanking with “CENSORED” printed across them. The photo streams of Flickr staff were inundated with protest images and personal attacks and users are uploading more protest images and tagging them with the names of Flickr staff. The help forum thread about the censorship immediately degenerated into a verbal mosh pit. There are some people who are trying to have a reasoned discussion about the problem, why it’s happening, etc., only to be shouted down by others who insist that there is no such law in Germany that restricts viewing nudity and even so it’s never been enforced–that is, if there, uh, IS such a law. WHICH THERE ISN’T (they insist). As if all of the screaming and thinly-disguised anti-Americanism wasn’t sickening enough, this sudden inability to view pictures of a woman’s bare tits HAS BEEN COMPARED TO THE HOLOCAUST and to TORTURE! See, my government actually engages in torturing people, so I am particularly sensitive to that comparison and as to the Holocaust comparison (someone actually quoted the “First they came for the Jews” poem!)…that, to me, is the low point of self-absorption.

As I come to the end of this very long post, I realize I haven’t included any links, for which I hope you’ll forgive me because I’m really too fried to sift through > 3,000 forum posts and countless thousands of censorship protest images at 2:15 a.m.

I sincerely hope that Stewart Butterfield and the Flickr (and Yahoo!) group can come to a globally-satisfactory resolution on this very quickly. I think one of the huge lessons that we all should take from this awful experience is that, in a global community such as Flickr, there really is no middle-of-the-road, no happy medium. How can there be, when one part of the globe takes no issue with photos of full-frontal nudity, while another part of the world finds a woman’s bare head obscene? How do you write code for a midline that shifts, not just globally, but even here in the United States? If the Flickr team can figure out a way to effectively do that then they will OWN Web 2.0!

But, for now, I’m backing away from Flickr a bit. I’ve realized over the last 36 (actually, closer to 46 now) hours that I can’t seem log on to the site without a feeling of tremendous anxiety, anger, frustration, despair, etc. As much as I love Flickr, at the end of the day, IT’S JUST A WEB SITE! I fear I’m losing perspective of that and it’s time to take a step back and then return to Flickr when I can sign in without feeling my throat closing up.

(cross-posted at Thinking Out Loud)

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