Thoughts on Flickr and human rights
As director of the Business & Human Rights Program at Yahoo!, I spend a great deal of time thinking and learning about how people use social media to further human rights aims, and also all of the ways that companies can try to ensure that their platforms and processes respect that expression.
Lately, with all that we are learning about the role of social media in uprisings around the world, companies are facing even more difficult questions. Our recent experience with Flickr is an excellent case study.
A well-known Egyptian activist, Mr. El Hamalawy, used his Flickr account to post photographs of people identified as members of Egypt’s security force. In the caption to the set of images, the activist explicitly stated that the photographs were not his, and that the people in the images should be exposed, shamed, and made to answer for their crimes. The Flickr community manager received more than one report from the Flickr community through the report abuse function, took down the photographs and sent Mr. El Hamalawy a notice that the images were taken down because they violated Flickr community rules.
Flickr is and has always been quite clear about users only being allowed to post their own photographs:
From Flickr’s Community Guidelines:
Don’t upload anything that isn’t yours.
This includes other people’s photos, video, and/or stuff you’ve copied or collected from around the Internet. Accounts that consist primarily of such collections may be deleted at any time.
This rule applies regardless of content, or of the purpose of the post. The reasoning for this is not only about copyright—and in this case, it’s not a copyright issue. It’s an issue of community: Flickr is meant to be a place where photographers, amateur and professional, can share their own work. Flickr, as a community, does not want to be a photo-hosting site, and anyone signing up for Flickr agrees to those rules, which apply whether one is a proud grandmother or a human rights activist.
This is a perfect example of the difficulty that human rights activists and companies have when activists use tools and products that were not initially created for human rights aims; activists are still subject to the community rules. In this case, following the rules would not endanger the user, whether or not he or she is a human rights activist. The rule simply requires human rights activists to use Flickr to post photographs that they have taken–they can use photo-hosting sites or create their own website to post images that are explicitly not their own work.
I have heard from some activists who believe that Flickr applies the rule unevenly; they have pointed out other photographs, including others from Mr. El Hamalawy’s account, that also appear to be photographs that were not taken by Mr. El Hamalawy. Here’s the thing: with millions and millions of photographs and Flickr accounts, Flickr does not have the ability to proactively moderate for photographs that were not taken by Flickr users. Flickr reactively responds to reports from Flickr community members.
Others have asked why Flickr would not make an exception to the rule for activists. It’s a great question, and one that I think about a great deal. It raises a number of questions for me, and I’d like to pose them to you:
Who is an activist? Who gets to decide? Are activists, for example, only people who hold views and advocate for the kinds of issues with which I agree? Should the designation be limited to registered human rights organizations? What about organizations in countries where registration as a human rights organization is illegal or dangerous? Would identified activists then be exempt from all of the rules? Or would they get to select which rules apply? Or should the company? What kind of mechanisms could companies set up to make these kinds of decisions?
What about the stated purpose of a community or semi-public space? Flickr was created specifically to allow photographers to share their work. Many Flickr users believe that the community of passionate and invested people make Flickr unique. They want to preserve Flickr’s character and to have a space where members, regardless of purpose, respect the rules, and the unity of purpose. Many Flickr members use Flickr to highlight human rights issues while taking care to follow community guidelines. If a space is created to serve a particular community, is it fair to the community for one group to be allowed to break those rules? Does a company have the responsibility to change the purpose of a product or platform because a segment of users demand it, regardless of whether that demand is made by a majority or a minority of members? These questions are fundamental to defining exactly what Flickr is – and what it can or should be in the future.
This afternoon, I was on a panel at SXSW, moderated by Danny O’Brien of the Committee to Protect Journalists. A number of participants expressed outrage about Flickr’s decision. One vowed to never use Yahoo!’s services again, and said that he believed that any Yahoo! product should not be used by human rights activists. I disagree, but I think it’s a point of view that, as a company, we have to be willing to hear. I am a passionate supporter of free expression as a fundamental human right, and I believe strongly in the idea that technology and social media provide incredible opportunities to create social change. I also know that millions of people use Yahoo! products, including Flickr, to create their version of the change they wish to see in the world. That’s a tremendous privilege, and a huge responsibility.
I look forward to hearing what you think.