Content Moderation Is Impossible: Facebook Settles Legal Fight Over Famous Painting Of A Woman's Genitals
from the which-policy-does-that-fit-under? dept
Just a few months ago, as part of our ongoing “content moderation at scale is impossible” series, we wrote about how Facebook has spent over a decade now struggling with how to deal with naked female breasts. There are a lot more details in that post, but it initially had a “no nudity” policy, but that got difficult when someone would post famous artwork or breastfeeding mothers. Facebook’s policy keeps trying to change to adapt, but no matter what it does it keeps running into more and more edge cases.
For the last eight years, Facebook has been fighting in French courts over something similar. A French school teacher had post a copy of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 oil painting, The Origin of the World. I’m not going to post a thumbnail here, because I’m sure it’ll set off all sorts of other content moderation algorithms. You can click above to see it, though it’s basically a painting of a naked woman, from a point of view in between her legs looking upward (which may or may not be SFW depending on where you work, so be warned). Facebook cancelled the teacher’s account and he sued.
Much of the dispute resolved around jurisdiction. Facebook wanted the case handled in California. The teacher, not surprisingly, wanted it tried in France. The teacher won. Back in early 2018, the French court ruled that Facebook was wrong to shut his account down — but since the teacher had apparently been able to sign up for a second account, said he wasn’t entitled to any damages. The teacher was going to appeal, but, according to Artnet, the case has now settled, with both parties agreeing to make a donation to Le MUR, which is described as “the French street art association.”
Given the situation, that seems like a perfectly reasonable end result (though an 8 year legal dispute does not). I also find it somewhat amusing that a French court decided to get into the business of determining whether or not Facebook’s moderation choices were “wrong,” but again it highlights the point that we’ve raised over and over again. Everyone who thinks it’s easy to make these moderation decisions is wrong. Even with this particular piece of art, I’d bet there are a big difference in opinions (especially between the US and France). Just a few months ago, we had various US Senators and some prudish panelists whining about the awful content that kids were exposed to online. I’m guessing they would not have approved of Courbet’s work showing up on Facebook at all.
And, of course, that helps to demonstrate the problem. What is Facebook supposed to do here? You have a French court telling them it must be left up, while you have American politicians saying stuff like this must be taken down. There is no right answer, which is kind of the point.