Thoughts on Flickr and human rights

Flickr Creative Commons | YasminMoll

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.

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21 Responses to “Thoughts on Flickr and human rights”

  1. Ebele, thanks for this thoughtful explanation and defence of Flickr’s decision. While it’s logical to address the takedown from the perspective of enforcing community guidelines, perhaps this a golden opportunity to reexamine those guidelines through a human rights lens. Yahoo has managed to address similar challenges creatively in the past – Fire Eagle is a great example – and this situation seems to me to offer a chance to model a more human rights-sensitive online media-sharing culture without compromising user experience or diluting the quality of the Flickr community’s contributed imagery. Two quick thoughts in response, one on human rights images in general, and the other on these images specifically.

    The takedown notice to Hossam el Hamalawy noted that he was not the author of these photographs. The problems is that when you’re sharing imagery of human rights abuses, or as in this case, official portraits of people suspected of human rights abuses, the images were taken (and technically the copyright held) by people considered to be perpetrators of human rights abuses. Were copyright notices to be applied to photos and videos in this way, much content leaked to the public in the public interest would never see the light of day: images from Abu Ghraib, Wael Abbas’ videos of police torture, the Wikileaks US military video. Copyright claims are also a common stalking horse for politically-motivated takedown of content. Copyright provisions don’t take account yet of these kinds of use-cases in a social media world.

    Here’s one suggestion of how Flickr might handle this differently in the future. Flickr has a section called The Commons (, which consists of photos contributed by a growing group of public archives. Much of the imagery therein is shared by, and attributed to, the participating archive, and the photos themselves are considered part of the public domain. The rights/usage statement ( specifies these four scenarios for determining whether copyright on a photo is considered ‘public domain’:

    The copyright is in the public domain because it has expired;
    The copyright was injected into the public domain for other reasons, such as failure to adhere to required formalities or conditions;
    The institution owns the copyright but is not interested in exercising control; or
    The institution has legal rights sufficient to authorize others to use the work without restrictions.

    Could the images that Hossam uploaded (and others like them) be considered ‘public domain’ under these conditions? If they were re-submitted by an institution (assuming that the Egyptian State Security are unlikely to submit a copyright counter-claim), would that provide them with a more stable status? Or could a ‘human rights’ category or section be created in The Commons, as a sort of public interest repository of human rights-related imagery?

    At the same time, I do have practical concerns about Hossam’s decision to post these images (caveat: I am not an expert in transitional justice…). Egypt’s transition is, let’s hope, irreversible, and it’s partly thanks to the tireless watchdogging and organising of long-standing activists like Hossam. Hossam and countless others were subjected to surveillance, intimidation, beating and torture from the state. Under the Mubarak regime, websites like Torture In Egypt, and projects like Piggipedia provided one way to expose against known torturers by exposing their identity to public knowledge – using in the digital domain a tactic, the escrache, that was used very effectively in the real world by Argentinian activists and citizens. Those images and archives need to be safeguarded and documented for use in processes of justice. My concern is that by posting these images (and images of case files) during a period of democratic transition, some aspects of that justice might be compromised, and it may prove more difficult to bring people known and proved to have tortured to justice once a civilian government is in charge, and an independent judiciary in place. How does putting imagery of this kind in the public domain and circulating it in social media affect processes of transitional justice, if at all? I’d be really interested in hearing thoughts from those more qualified than me on this issue in particular.

  2. Katherine says:

    So, you don’t make an exception for human rights activism but you do make an exception for your executives? Or will these be taken down as well?

  3. Victoria says:

    The application of the stated TOS (included the recent elaborations) is extremely uneven and reveals unwritten bias.

    The Smithsonian is an organization, not a person, and has a huge archive of “not its own work.” This is more properly the function of Groups, as currently defined.

    The Obama has a flickr account: those are not Obama’s pictures that he took. In fact, that is probably not actually Obama who owns the account (another Yahoo issue). It is definitely political activism. It in no way respects the TOS.

    I’m sure there are more examples.

    There is an unarticulated policy at work and it is biased.

  4. Setting aside the human rights considerations for a moment, let’s consider the notion of “don’t post anything that isn’t yours” through the lens of intellectual property, specifically. The visual arts have always combined original creativity with derivative inspiration. Today we call them “remixes” and “mashups”, but since the earliest cave paintings, artists take inspiration for their works from other artists and the world around them. In such a context, what constitutes “yours”?

    If 3arabawy had simply taken that set of photos and applied a Photoshop filter to change their background, make them sepia-toned, combined them into a collage instead of posting them individually, or put little devil-horns on the subjects’ heads, would that creative reinterpretation have made them “his” for the purposes of the Community Guidelines?

    Please remember that international copyright laws which respect the Berne Convention allow for “fair use” as a defense against infringement claims; “fair uses” include uses such as commentary, criticism, parody, research, scholarship, teaching and news reporting. If Yahoo declares Flickr an island which does not recognize such important international treaty rights, it makes perfect sense not just for activists to take their images elsewhere, but for all photographers and visual artists to do the same. Fair use rights are free speech rights.

  5. Wil C. Fry says:

    I for one applaud Flickr’s stance on this issue, though I can see the need on the other side of the table as well.

    On the one hand, intellectual property rights are at stake in so many online venues throughout the world. There have been too many instances of amateur photographers finding their images used in commercial advertising without permission or even a request for license, not to mention a host of other copyright issues (including the problem of a site trying to cater to an entire world while each nation has its own variant of copyright law).

    And, as the above story notes, this particular instance isn’t just about copyright, but about Flickr’s own rules. For this reason as well, I like to see Flickr enforcing its policy (which isn’t dependent on copyright law at all) of each user only uploading his/her own images. While many users think of a site like Flickr as their own playground, it’s fair to remind them regularly that it’s a business, and customers should play by a business’s rules (especially after explicitly agreeing to them).

    On the other hand, human rights activists and political activists should have a public platform as well. It just happens that Flickr isn’t that platform.

  6. Lee says:

    Thirty-five thousand photos tagged as “not mine” on the site and these are the ones you go after. That’s pathetic.

  7. I have also written my own response, here:

    I was a member of the panel at SXSW noted in this piece.

  8. Thomas Hawk says:

    Q. If the rules of Flickr that you can only post photos that you yourself have taken, why are you posting photos by other people in your own flickr account linked on this page? Wouldn’t that seem a little hypocritical to you?

  9. Edgar says:

    Flickr, you fail completely at offering a convincing explanation for your actions. I highly suspect that if someone uploaded photos of Iraninan officials accused of torture or Chineese officials accused of torture, they wouldn’t be taken down. Why? Because those two countries are on the approved enemies list whereas every corrupt king and dictatorship in the Middle East and North Africa is a close friend of Washington. Double standards through and through.

  10. Steve Rhodes says:

    Flickr’s action was wrong. And your stance supporting it, particularly as director of the human rights program at yahoo is appalling.

    Having those photos and others he posted on flickr did not diminish the community. It enhanced it.

    I made him a contact because I wanted to see what was happening in Egypt from the perspective who someone who was there. And that includes both images he created and those he found important.

    Flickr had posts on the protests

    but you removed his images showing the results of one of the most dramatic protests.

    I can’t speak for Caterina and Stuart, but somehow I don’t think that is what they created flickr for (and they did respond to how the community was using flickr. Originally it was just photos, but they allowed illustrations and other art because so many people were sharing it).

    I really can’t understand why anyone would report those photos because he didn’t take them (though his tax money was used to take them).

    Flickr is a platform for human rights activists and organizations and the yahoo human rights program should work to make sure that continues, not say you should go somewhere else. I don’t want them to continue to post images here.

    A major human rights organization is posting images they purchased from a photo agency to flickr. I would hope if I named them, you wouldn’t remove the photos. And other non-profits who are part of your flickr for good program post photos that weren’t taken by staff.

    Flickr recently asked us to “Please help support the people of Japan”

    And many people responded by posting images, some they created themselves, but many used graphics and photos they didn’t create. Would you really remove them if you received complaints?

    Do you realize how untenable rigidly enforcing your rules is?

    You should read his responses to your remarks at SXSW as they were passed on!/3arabawy

    I hope you will restore the photos and work with human rights groups to change your rules.

  11. MT says:

    It’s disingenuous to act like Yahoo/Flickr cares about human rights but has its hands tied because it doesn’t want to be a photo-hosting site. The bottom line is that Flickr has decided to selectively apply its policy to remove photos of those involved in a huge torture and oppression apparatus. These photos are extremely important for those seeking basic human rights in Egypt, and Flickr, which has plenty of disk space, erased them.

    It’s unsurprising that Flickr would receive complaints about these particular photos, since those who stand to lose from democracy in Egyptian are of course likely to complain about them.

    Now Yahoo execs want to have a mind-numbing conversation about things like “who gets to decide” who an activist is, as if this will help us better understand whether Flickr should continue to censor some of the most important images that will ever appear on its site. If Yahoo execs truly have any concern for human rights, then instead of wasting time, they will do whatever needs to be done to get those pics back up immediately.

  12. Ebele Okobi-Harris | Director, Yahoo! BHRP says:

    Thomas, you are exactly right! The BHRP photo gallery got taken down. . .

  13. Ebele Okobi-Harris | Director, Yahoo! BHRP says:

    Very thoughtful, Sameer–I think it also goes to an important question of if/how a company or product wants to evolve. Those are really great ideas, and I am passing them along. Your thoughts on the content of such photographs are spot-on. I’m actually going to do another post highlighting them. Thanks so much!

  14. Thomas Hawk says:

    Thomas, you are exactly right! The BHRP photo gallery got taken down. . .

    Ebele, they didn’t need to come down. That’s not the point. I’ve been as active as anybody on Flickr. The photos you had in your gallery in no way diminish the Flickr experience. In fact they enhance it. They were very much in the spirit of what Flickr is about.

    As were Arabawy’s.

    You guys don’t get it. Arabawy’s photos are what *make* Flickr a better place. It’s what makes it a more exciting place. Having a major pro-democracy blogger using Flickr as a tool for social change *is* in fact what Flickr should be about. It’s also what Twitter, and Facebook and Google should be and increasingly are about.

    Flickr/Yahoo should try to get in the way of their users as little as is humanly possible. Censorship should be a measure of last resort and only if something really, really, really needs to be censored (i.e. illegal content, copyright violations under the DMCA, etc.).

    Flickr should not be playing mother may I with the content on the site when the content is not illegal.

    The fact of the matter is that Flickr chose to selectively apply a rule here on content that as a long time Flickr contributor I feel is very much in the spirit of what Flickr ought to be about.

    If an account is a spam account, an account doing nothing but hosting gifs for eBay, an account of nothing but copyright rip offs, then by all means, flickr should enforce their rule. But if an account is a legitimate authentic account that just happens to also occasionally host work that is not theirs (like Flickr Staffers, like Flickr’s Co-Founders, like your own account before you changed it, like hundreds of thousands of flickr accounts today) then flickr should just stay the hell out of the way.

    What hurts more in this case is that not only was Arabawy’s account legitimate and his voice authentic, but what he had to say and what he was doing were terribly important. He is a hero. Stopping torture in the world and exposing torturers is a *good* thing, not a bad thing. Having Arabawy’s photos on Flickr in no way diminished the “flickr experience” for the shutterbugs who upload photos of flowers and cats.

    Flickr needs to understand the difference between a copyright rip off account and an account like Arabawy’s. And they need to respect our data as users when those hard decisions need to be made.

    Your response is a cop out based on a technicality. This is not the right or moral response that Yahoo ought to give. Maybe you are just doing PR damage control at this point, but the right, moral and ethical thing to do in this case would be to apologize to Arabawy. Recognize the validity of his voice and his fight and his right to make his flickrstream a part of that.

    By doing this Flickr/Yahoo would be validating to me and to the rest of the world know that as our flickrstreams reflect our lives, our hopes, our dreams, our future, that Yahoo understands and respects us and our data and won’t let something like this happen again.

    If Yahoo has any chance at all at winning the hearts and minds of the internet then they simply can’t continue letting stuff like this happen as has been going on year in and year out at flickr.

  15. Thomas Hawk says:

    By the way, thank you for publishing my comments on this important subject. I respect that. Frequently if I post a comment on a Yahoo blog it is moderated away and on places like Flickr itself I’m permanently banned from the pubic staff forum. It’s refreshing to be able to express a valid opinion here without it being censored by Yahoo, even if it is critical.

  16. Ebele Okobi-Harris | Director, Yahoo! BHRP says:

    Sameer Padania, formerly of Witness, recommended designating a space in the Commons for human rights photographs. I think that has potential to be a very creative solution. . .it would allow Flickr users who are passionate about having and maintaining a space for photographers to keep that space, and would also allow human rights activists to create a designated space for images that are public domain, that have human rights content.

    Any additional thoughts on this as an idea? I’m curious, as well, going back to the first post, about recommendations for specific ideas about how to define activists in a way that is broad enough to capture all of the different categories of activists, but not so broad that the term applies to just anyone.

    I am not a copyright expert, so I would have to ask about potential implications for images when the putative rights holder is in a position to make a claim, but would love to hear thoughts on that.

    More to come; please do keep ideas and thoughts coming—I’m learning a great deal from all of you!

  17. Ebele Okobi-Harris | Director, Yahoo! BHRP says:

    Thomas–the BHRP really DOES believe in free expression! Seriously, though, I admire your passion and I think that anyone who cares this much about human rights and is this engaged in one of our platforms is someone I’d like to learn more from and about. Would love to have a conversation.

  18. Ethan Pham says:

    Hi Ebele,
    I recently learned about Yahoo! BHRP and would like to express my genuine appreciation for what you and Yahoo are doing with the BHRP. I was born and raised in a third-world country and have lived in numerous others where human rights abuses are rampant, so I can definitely appreciate Yahoo’s winning cause. I’ve always been passionate about human rights issues, but being a first year law student in these exciting times when when people around the world are standing up demanding freedom and calling for an end to human rights abuses my passion has been fueled even more. I can definitely see myself pursuing my legal career in this avenue. Once again, thanks to you and Yahoo for doing what you do with BHRP. You’re an inspiration to me and many others.

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