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New Site Lets You Report Facebook and Other Networks When They Censor Art

Michelangelo's "David" (Image via Flickr/Justin Ennis)
Michelangelo’s “David” (photo byJustin Ennis/Flickr)

Nudity in art has been around for thousands of years, but Facebook still can’t take it. The social media site has deleted pics of artworks by people like Kate Durbin and Erika Ordosgoitto. It has blocked users like Frédéric Durand-Baïssas for sharing paintings including Gustave Courbet’s “L’Origine du Monde.” And though some people have protested by creating Facebook groups like Artists Against Art Censorship, recording every instance of censorship — let alone fighting back — is next to impossible.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) hopes to change that with a new site called Online Censorship. Created with Visualizing Impact, the website invites people to privately report instances of censorship not just on Facebook, but also on Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Instagram, and Google+. EFF then studies the data to understand what gets censored, why, and how it affects people around the world. It’s all in the hopes of encouraging companies to tread more lightly in making decisions that impact free speech.

“The data we collect will allow us to raise public awareness about the ways these companies are regulating speech,” EFF Director for International Freedom of Expression Jillian York said in a statement. “We hope that companies will respond to the data by improving their regulations and reporting mechanisms and processes — we need to hold Internet companies accountable for the ways in which they exercise power over people’s digital lives.”

York developed the idea for the project with Visualizing Impact CEO Ramzi Jaber in 2012, after Facebook removed a link to a pro-Palestinian song that Coldplay published on its band page. The post received more than 7,000 comments, but it disappeared after thousands of users reported it as abusive. The episode was emblematic of the problems of social media: a crowd of offended users flags a post as inappropriate for personal or political reasons; the offending party is never notified; and then censorship is enacted by corporations — or really, the people who work for them.

Not only did the Coldpay event make York and Jaber realize how difficult it is to track such censorship, it also showed them it was absolutely necessary to try and do so anyway. “Most online platforms through which we choose to express ourselves — and upon which many of us increasingly depend — are privately owned and operated,” they write on the site. “With these social media platforms replacing a truly open ‘public sphere,’ we need to be asking some serious questions about the role of companies in defining what is or is not ‘acceptable’ public speech.”

In 2014, their idea won a Knight News Challenge on the topic of strengthening the internet for free expression and innovation. The grant allowed them to finally launch the platform. So next time Facebook — whose terms of service claim that “art nudity is ok” — freaks out over your performance art pic, don’t just get mad. Report it.

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