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Editorial: Flickr censorship or moderation mess-up? Thursday, May 17 2007

Editorial: Flickr censorship or moderation mess-up?

By Mason Resnick

I've been closely monitoring an interesting case that's been evolving this week where the online photo sharing community has been up in arms over the apparent, inexplicable censorship of a photographer's photos and comments on Yahoo!'s Flickr after it was discovered that a London-based poster company had stolen the photos and were selling unauthorized prints of her images and pocketing all of the profits.

When popular Flickr member Rebekka Guðleifsdóttira's photos (her Flickr homepage shown) and comments were deleted, immediate charges of censorship were leveled against Flickr. Other Flickr members (as well as competitor Zooomr CEO Thomas Hawke) rallied to her defense by the hundreds. Flickr didn't respond--at least initially--leading many to charge that as a part of Yahoo had "gone corporate" and was making bad decisions.

At the time of deletion of the post and accompanying image, there had been over 450 comments about how copyright infringement is a crime, and the post had been viewed over 100,000 times, according to Rebekka. Flickr's (and Yahoo's) reputations were clearly damaged by this strange incident.

Today Flickr apologized for deleting Rebekka's photos and comments, saying it was a mistake--and offered an insight into the reasoning behind Flickr's befuddling moderation actions. In a statement, Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield explained that "The photo was deleted...because of the direction the comments had gone, which included posting the personal information of the infringing company’s owner and suggestions for how best to exact revenge" and that the supportive comments were turning into "angry mob behavior that crossed the line." Butterfield mentioned that policies will be changing to assure such mistakes don't happen again. (He also said that Flickr is investigating the London gallery's apparent copyright infringement of Rebekka's work.)

The anger seems to be subsiding. "I'm relieved that [Flickr] owned up to their hasty action of removing the photo," writes Rebekka in a comment added today on her latest Flickr post.

My message to Stewart Butterfield? Been there, done that.

As the moderator of Popular Photography's online forums for nearly four years, I've had my share of out-of-control comments that had to be deleted, promptly followed by charges of censorship. Deleted comments included personal information about individual posters (sound familiar?), libelous charges leveled by one poster towards another, physical threats, personal attacks, and bulk-spamming of the forums by posters who were angry about one thing or another. And repeat offenders (fortunately, only a handful) were banned after multiple warnings.

Some banned members started their own forum so they could slam Pop Photo. I even have in my file a poem written about what a terrible person I was for banning a certain person who was constantly insulting everyone in the forums!

In many cases, those not involved would accuse Pop of censorship--until I explained my reasoning for removing a post or banning a member, which usually quelled the discontent. Lively debates bout freedom of speech and censorship vs. the benefits of moderation were discussed. For example: If an insulting post attacking another poster is deleted, is that censorship or an attempt to create an atmosphere where participants can feel safe posting their comments without fear of being slammed? Moderation rules evolved after each incident, and now the forums are going strong thanks to the efforts of Jack Howard and his team of moderators.

I learned that when running an online community, if you are open with your reasons for seemingly controversial decisions, it will lead to a stronger community, as it did with Pop Photo. If policies are clearly stated and evenly enforced (which requires a lot of moderator hours!) people will happily get back to serious discussions of their photos and photography. I believe Flickr will survive and thrive as long as the people behind the curtain are open and honest with the participants, and are willing to admit when they've goofed up. Stuart Butterfield has done this.

In a post on her blog today, Rebekka (who says she accepts Butterfield's apology and plans to renew her Flickr membership) notes that "the broad discussions on various forums, sparked by my original post, will hopefully help to make people more aware of artists rights, when posting their material on the net. The widespread assumption that once its on the web, its public property, needs to be disspelled."

And that's the real story here.

© 2007 Adorama

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