Human rights and social media

Building human rights into your social site

Image: CC-AT-SA Flickr: TTC Press Images

... goes the name of the panel I spoke on yesterday at SXSW Interactive, alongside Danny O’Brien of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Rebecca MacKinnon and Ebele Okobi-Harris, director of the Business & Human Rights program at Yahoo. Rebecca, Danny and I frequently deal with complaints from activists in respect to account deactivations and other human rights-related issues. One component (undoubtedly of many) of Ebele’s job happens to be handling the same issues, but from the other side of the fence.

Rebecca spoke largely about human rights issues on Chinese sites (as well as on American sites in China), while I touched on account deactivation in the Middle East and North Africa, referencing cases over the years from the Fouad Mourtada affair to the November 2010 takedown of the ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ group (because its admin used a pseudonym).

Though our points were surely well-taken, the conversation blew up when a very recent example of content deletion was raised. Late last week, after Egyptians reclaimed data from the state security services, one item they found were 3 CD-ROM of photographs of various state security officers.

Hossam Hamalawy, a well-known Egyptian journalist and activist, posted those photographs to Flickr, noting on the page where the photographs originated and why he was posting them (here’s why). Flickr then removed the photographs, something which surely happens all the time and may have gone unnoticed had Hamalawy (@3arabawy on Twitter) not escalated the incident, with help from folks like Andy Carvin. Flickr then responded:

The images in question were removed because they were not that member’s work. As stated by the Community Guidelines, ‘Flickr accounts are intended for members to share original photos and video that they themselves have created.’

Flickr isn’t a place for members to just host images but a place where members share original photos and video; and the Flickr community is built around that. For this reason, when we discover images that violate this provision, we may remove such images from the account and, in some instances, delete the account altogether.

While we regret that this action has upset the user, he must understand that this is not a decision we ever take lightly but only as necessary to ensure that Flickr remains a great place to creatively post and share original photos and videos with friends, family and the world.”

In short, the issue is thus: This is not an issue of copyright, but one of Flickr’s TOS, which require photographs posted on the site to have been taken by the user posting them. Because Hamalawy precisely stated that the photographs were not his, Flickr took them down.

On our panel, Ebele explained that she regretted that the issue hadn’t been brought to her attention; nevertheless, she stated that she can’t say the end result wouldn’t have been the same. She also stated that, unlike when (for example) a user on Facebook is required to use his real name, she did not believe that the takedown of the photos put Hamalawy at risk (he disagrees). Today, she followed up our panel with a blog post.

The reactions at the panel ranged from outrage, from Gilles Frydman (who was involved along with Carvin in the escalation), to frustration, expressed by Issandr El Amrani, who was involved in the situation (as the person who paid for Hamalawy’s Pro account) and felt that Flickr was coming out on the wrong side of history and should have engaged with Hamalawy and changed their policies to allow for his photos to remain.

On Ebele’s blog post today, an interesting discussion has begun to take place. In the comments, two people have pointed out two very excellent points: 1) that there are plenty of other examples across the site of photographs clearly not taken by the person posting them and 2) that human rights should be given (or at least considered for) exception.

Here are my own thoughts: The first point speaks exactly to the point I’ve been raising about Facebook for over a year now. Community policing, while probably the only scaleable model, is often skewed against activists and well-known people. This is the situation we’re seeing right now with Michael Anti: there are undoubtedly thousands of Chinese users on Facebook using Anglicized names (as it’s a fairly common thing for Chinese, especially outside of China, to do). I have several as friends. And yet, Anti was caught because he’s a well-known person, and was undoubtedly reported, perhaps by enemies (perhaps even by enemies in the Chinese government).

To the second point, I agree with Sameer Padania in the comments section:

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?

But, in all fairness, I want to note that these changes don’t happen overnight. It’s hard to say Flickr did the wrong thing in the short amount of time they had to deal with it, but I do believe that they should rectify the situation by re-thinking and amending their policies. That said, Flickr could have given Hamalawy a pass for now while they dealt with this internally.

Ultimately, however, it’s Flickr’s decision, and unfortunately, human rights simply don’t trump the profit that comes from other users. As Ebele said herself (in response to a question from Gilles Frydman in which he asked, “so should I tell activists to just leave Flickr?”), Flickr may not be the platform for everyone. Flickr may simply not be a safe space for activists.

Note: I initially, and erroneously, stated that Ebele was sick when this happened.


This article originally appeared here and is licensed under Creative Commons AT-NC-ND

Jillian York is a Boston-based writer, researcher, and activist. You can visit her blog, or follow her on twitter

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By Jillian York on Mar 17, 2011

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