Thursday, February 24, 2011

NY Times: Facebook Censors Art School

Here's a little update on the Facebook censorship issue.

But, before I continue.... here's the New York Times article.

Art School Runs Afoul of Facebook's Nudity Policy

This post is more of an open dialogue with myself about this issue, which the more I think about, the more it reveals itself to be quite complex. But I'll try not to get ahead of myself.

Many people have pointed out that the specific word "censorship" only applies to the actions of a government. In this case, I would argue that Facebook largely governs the world of social media, according to their own laws, which they selected and they enforce, with no possibility of feedback or input from the users.

But, FB is not a government, it is a private business. And of course, in a pure free market, we could simply choose to go to another social network. Or, we could set up our own website. But the simple truth is that if we did that, the number of people viewing our work would drop precipitously and so would our sales. With over 500 million users, Facebook has revolutionized the way painters, collectors, galleries, and the public interact. FB has indeed been a democratizing force, equalizing the power between the artist, the collector, and the gallery. It has made itself indispensable as a marketing tool. In fact, as a small business owner myself, (being a painter is also a business) it's very difficult to compete if I do not have a presence on FB. Yet, that's exactly why the deletion of some of my best work has been such an issue: "Hermetica" and "What Remains" (featured above: incredibly offensive, right?) Many other painters are allowed to present their best work and fairly compete for the 3-5 second first glance that will determine whether a collector will investigate further or keep searching. Yet, those of us who paint the nude are not.

But, it's even more subtle than that. I think the analogy of the high seas would be appropriate. Both the British Empire and world trade benefitted from keeping the seas open for free trade. But if you were invited to board the largest ship on the ocean (Facebook), would it be the captain's right to duck tape your mouth, while remaining anonymous and unreachable to the passengers of the ship? You can't just jump overboard, and you wouldn't survive if you just built your own raft. Well, no-one forced you to get on the ship in the first place. That is true. But bear with me as I explore a train of thought.

With FB, there IS a gray area because there are two conflicting "rights" here. Many have said that FB has the "right" to decide what they allow posted there and I agree. But we also have certain rights, which are discussed in The Bill of Rights: rights which are considered unalienable under the constitution... that is they are natural to the person (or entity) and are not simply tied to the land in which the person (or entity) resides. This is why FB, an entity residing on U.S soil, can exercise their rights on the open seas of the internet and why I can as well.

The specific rights in question are free speech and the right to access the same free market that others enjoy. But, there's a point where each party's rights, if given full reign, will inherently impinge on the rights of the other party. And the case here is that FB's right to decide has impinged on my right to speech and the free market.

9th Amendment:
"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

If I'm not mistaken, this is largely upheld by international law.
(Interesting text on the 9th amendment)

The rights of a corporate entity (a non-person) should not supersede the rights of a person. Or if you prefer to look at it this way, I am a small business and Facebook is a huge business. Regardless, if either of us exercise the full extent of our rights, we will impinge on the rights of the other party.

Complicating this issue is that FB has become a near monopoly as social networks go. Yes, they have the best product and I'm not saying that they should be regulated. But the point is that it's become incredibly inconvenient for a business/institution to compete without using social networking. If I start my own website, or even use the many other websites that don't censor classical nude paintings, it will largely be a waste of time, because very few people will see my work. Therefore, it is not precisely a free market.

For the moment, it seems FB is legally within their rights. What they're doing is bad business and, ethically speaking, is absolutely wrong since their policy is prejudicial against artists. But they are a private company, and I was not quite forced to use their services. If it were because I was a racial minority, that would be illegal, but since it's because I paint classical nudes, it is not. To be fair, there is a difference.

However, does that mean that we should simply accept it and allow a minority group to be unfairly silenced by an artificial market? I won't answer that question for you, but will simply raise a few more. If we project into the future it gets even more complicated.

Facebook is governing a commodity that is becoming increasingly more of a necessity (especially in my field) as the trend towards self-employment grows, as internet marketing grows, as well as the specific use of social networking as a marketing forum for businesses, institutions, and even corporations. At some point Facebook could have over 1 billion users... 2 billion... with no real competition. This is feasible. And the more users they have, the more powerful FB is as a marketing tool, and the harder it is to compete without it. This is because right now they offer the best product. BUT, the question is, if one private corporation controls access for enough people to a necessary commodity, (take for example: education) and demonstrates prejudice against one specific group in regards to that access... at what point do we do something? At what point does it become a legal issue?

Consider this: Walmart, in 2005 grossed more than the GDP of all but the 25 largest NATIONS in the world. All they need is a police force, and they are pretty much their own country. I'm not being anti-corporate here, but I'm pointing out the trend that trans-national business is taking. Now, imagine that Walmart was the only place you could buy milk. Would they have the "right" to kick you out for reciting a poem? I'm being melo-dramatic, but only to more clearly illustrate the point.

There is a point where private property will intersect with public rights on a societal scale. We haven't reached it yet, but if things continue as they have been, we just might.

The answer for now, is that I hope FB will be more clear about the parameters and fairly enforce them. Maybe if we raise enough commotion they will take the hint. And it would be quite simple to address this problem with some kind of adult content filter similar to flickr. PROBLEM SOLVED. But, as of yet, nothing has changed, and the administrators of FB have given no signs that we should expect a change.

So, what's the next move?


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see that this issue is being raised and discussed. Your historical analogy is thoughtful and well received.

I believe the popularity associated with the content in question (though hardly questionable) is the trigger for content removal and/or deletion. I find it odd, that my own work, which is nude except for genitals, has NOT been removed for several months (since Sept. 2010). That or they deem it so amateurish its more abstract art than realistic nudity! :) I get the feeling, from several of the Odd Nerdrum competitions, the policy is VERY SUBJECTIVE.

I believe FB has set upon a path that of Myspace just by the new style of their "image viewer". I very much hope that they either reverse course (very unlikely) or another social network is born out of user dissatisfaction. We could only hope that such an entity could possibly retake the market share FB now thoroughly enjoys/abuses (also very unlikely).

Jerry said...

We have a private business social network platform about to be released. It integrates with FB and Twitter and has e-commerce capabilities. Would you like to discuss this potential solution?

New York City said...

Great points.
Speaking of which, it seems like someone might already be working on the alternative to fb. :)

I would be very interested in hearing about your platform. Specifically, how does it differ from the many others that do the same thing?

Unknown said...

Thank you for your articulate description of a situation that most are not grasping yet. I am working with the the BCABPP ( and facebook has once again deleted photos that were so artful and sent a positive message to Breast Cancer Survivors. With so many nudes streaming by my cyber window daily - and pages like girls gone stupid (I mean wild) making money off of dehumanizing women and sending anti positive female messages into the "viewing community and their MIND." I wonder if this little rabbit hole does not go quiet deep and where it ends .... who will know? But I continue to see connections between those who have positive self image pages & photographs (or just art) versus those who commercialize "sex / sexuality / and animal behavior in general." I've shared and forwarded this.. thanks again. dZ