Gustave Courbet Case: Facebook Revises Rules Over Banned Content

L'Origine du Monde

Facebook has unveiled a revised and extended version of its “community standards” – the rule book through which the company governs what is acceptable material uploaded to the site by its 1.4 billion users; expanding the categories that it deems as unacceptable content, further clarifying what regular users worldwide are NOT allowed to upload and share.

In January of this year a French Facebook user took the social media giant to court after his account was closed down after he posted an image of Courbet’s controversial painting ‘L’Origine du Monde’ 1866. According to Le Figaro, the world-famous oil-on-canvas was part of a promo for an art history video about the artwork, broadcast by the highbrow TV channel Arte. Following this, a Paris court ruled that it has jurisdiction to judge a case against the US social networking site.

The plaintiff, a Parisian schoolteacher has been described by his solicitor Stéphane Cottineau as “a decent man, cultivated, and attached to the transmission of knowledge,” is seeking the reactivation of his Facebook account as well as €20,000, or £149,000 in damages.

Facebook already removes a variety of violent and offensive content, including pornography, blatant nudity, and posts supporting terrorist groups such as Isis. But it seems that it remains confused by the category of art. The website’s new guidelines provide further information on the types of “dangerous organisations” that are banned, as well as further details on other materials it considers inappropriate.

In fact the internet giant has imposed new rules including bans on images that are “focusing in on fully exposed buttocks” and “images of female breasts if they include the nipple”, which will no doubt cause further problems for any enthusiastic art teacher wishing to use social media to help educate his or her population of student ‘friends’.

New bans also include written descriptions of sexual acts in “vivid detail”, organisations involved in “violent, criminal or hateful behaviour” are also deemed unacceptable, as well as altering images to “degrade” an individual or posting videos of physical bullying. These are all welcome clarifications, and an entirely correct and considered response to inappropriate material – which proves the company’s ability to make intelligent judgements regarding the policing of its content – but this only adds to our confusion when Facebook is entirely incapable of directing the same logic towards images of recognised and important works of art.

There are hundreds of Facebook staff around the world who are dedicated solely to responding to reports from users of inappropriate material appearing on the site. But the way the company interprets its own guidelines has been confused in the past, when in 2013 Facebook was heavily criticised for allowing images and videos of people being beheaded on its site. The company made a swift U-turn upon realisation, and within days had banned the disturbing content, possibly adding to the argument that the social networking giant seems to find it impossible to differentiate between dangerous and disturbing content, and images that reside in many galleries and museums throughout the world without need of censorship.

But on a more positive note, Facebook has clarified what material it has deemed appropriate, adding that it will “always allow photos of women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring”. It only remains a shame that the social media giant cannot seem to make the same distinction where it comes to images of works of art that are recognised internationally as of great cultural and historical value, regardless of any nudity present.

Surely Facebook’s policing staff can Google it to check?, unfortunately that would be irrelevant in light of the company’s existing rules. It would seem that regardless of these new changes in policy – where it comes to the company’s understanding of great art – Facebook’s rules are still in need of further amendment.

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2015 all rights reserved


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