The Perils Of Flickr’s “May Offend” Button

Quite a while ago now, stepinrazor asked people to do some self-censorhip in a post in the Flickr Ideas forum. FlyButtafly quickly joined the discussion, noting that she’d encountered some material she found offensive in pictures from other Flickr members: “as I’m going through the pictures, one shows up of a protestor holding a sign with a vulgar statement on it.” Though she refused to identify what she saw that was offensive, she did note in a later post that she “would never take my child to a pro-abortion rally.”

Striatic was quick to point out that “it probably wasn’t a pro-abortion rally, it was a likely a pro-choice rally.” Adding:

it’s easy to respect your opinion .. and i’ll try not to mislable your morality .. but even if you think that pro-choice is a corrupt morality {it isn’t beyond debate}, could you please not mis-represent it?

Meanwhile, in a somewhat different thread of the same conversation, GustavoG asked:

But was it offensive? To whom? To what culture? To what subculture within what culture?

Are you aware of the fact that your own icon would be offensive in the Muslim world? Your face can be seen, without any attempt to cover it. Shouldn’t you be forced to label your icon as “may offend”, and therefore be made invisible to the public?

I’ve been trying to synthesize the resulting discussion into a short, meaningful post for over a year now, but what appeared in the Flickr forum was so rich that I’ve now simply decided to quote the best bits of it and let them stand on their own.

FlyButtafly, who had started the thread with a specific question shot back at GustavoG’s expansion of the issue:

your comment about the muslim culture was completely extraneous. It has nothing to do with the issue at hand. We aren’t talking about inane issues that have to do with specific religions, otherwise we could go on to say that you can’t post pictures of pigs because of Jews and muslims and seventh-day adventists, etc., or that we couldn’t show a steak because of hindus. C’mon, let’s please stay on topic.

Quas responded:

I think that was exactly Gustavo’s point, and I think it’s a good one. Obviously Flickr isn’t going to censor pig/steak photos, yet these could be considered offensive to some.

Any photo could be potentially offensive to any viewer [OK, an exaggeration, but bear with me] — it’s just a matter of drawing the line somewhere. And since everyone will draw the line at a slightly different place, it’s going to be very hard (or impossible) to please everyone.

FlyButtafly narrowed the question:

I don’t think anyone disagrees with what is pornographic. Or why don’t we just say “nudity” that way there’s no confusion? Is it offensive to state what is in the picture? And to be able to shield myself from that type of image?

fallsroad re-expanded it:

That statement has been the center of court cases, debates, and regulation since the beginning of the Republic, and will be until long after we are all dust.

Again, FlyButtafly:

It is asking if we could have an explicit “nudity/pornography” and “obscenity/vulgarity” flag. There’s not any ambiguousness about those flags. At least not for the pornography one. Here, if anyone doesn’t understand what that word means: Someone with little or no clothes on.

To which ///Alex leapt:

Someone with little or no clothes on… != Pornography

Is this a pornographic photo?

…And GustavoG added:

you’re asking for the built-in ability to filter the world according to what offends you, and even by one or two of the things that offend you. Let’s assume this is done — and then someone requests another set of flags and buttons and whatnot, this time to filter out some other kind content that you would not find to be objectionable. For example, a steak. (I’m assuming you don’t object to steaks.) What would you say then — “yes, the system should support filtering steaks out”? Or “”o, there is no need for that functionality because I don’t think steaks are objectionable“?

If the steak filter is implemented, next time someone will require yet another filter — e.g. ”I’m offended by improper punctuation, photos with title, comment or notes with improper punctuation should be filtered out“.

Once everybody is happy seeing the three or four remaining non-objectionable photos, how many flags, filters and buttons will be there?

Accusing people of bigotry is easy – one just has to type the words. Please consider what it means, if you think that what offends you should be implemented globally, but what offends others needn’t.

Finally, FlyButtafly:

Maybe I should have stated it this way: In the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA we have certain laws that have been approved by the majority for centuries about what should be allowed in the public square. If this were not true, then we would not have such things as indecency laws, we wouldn’t have a ratings system, and anyone could pretty much get away with anything.

Fallsroad quickly pointed out FlyButtafly’s concerns are matter of great public debate. For my part, I took issue with the suggestion that morality laws of any sort “have been approved by the majority for centuries” in the US.

Censorship became a matter of federal interest in the late 1800s as a result of agitating by Anthony Comstock who burned 15 tons of books in his crusade against perceived obscenity and immorality. Richard Zacks’ An Underground Education reports that Comstock’s furor was a result of his compulsive feelings of desire and self stimulation that accompanied the sight of such materials.

J. Edgar Hoover followed Comstock as America’s top obscenity cop, ordering his agents to deliver confiscated materials directly to his office where it would be placed in a vault accessible only to Hoover and a close friend (also from Zacks). But Hoover and the FBI found themselves on the losing side of a number of First Amendment decisions when the government tried to shut down Reuben Sturman‘s publishing enterprise — a story well told in Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness.

It’s worth remembering that Last Tango in Paris, with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, was rated X when first released in 1973, the same year the popular press coined the term “porno chic” and Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door were playing in mainstream theaters.

The current state of obscenity laws is best credited to (failed banker and convicted felon) Charles Keating, who agitated tirelessly for the government to thoroughly regulate the publishing industry while turning a blind eye toward banking. His 1965 film, Perversion for Profit, attempted to link pornography to Communism and the decline of western civilization. The perils of other people’s moral bankruptcy, it would seem, outweighed the risk of Keating’s own business bankruptcy. Though many argue that it was a moral bankruptcy of a different sort, the latter resulted multiyear depression in large part brought on by the savings and loan scandal and precipitated by Keating’s felonious financial fraud.

The Reagan administration tried to strike out obscenity, but failed to establish the case that the state’s interest (however conflicted) in preventing adults from viewing their own choice of materials was superior to the First Amendment’s constitutional prohibition of state censorship.

In short, we Americans have never been unanimous in our feelings about obscenity. Indeed, the only decision that has withstood the test of time has been the our insistence on free speech.