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.

Filed Under: content moderation, content moderation at scale, france, gustave courbet, origin of the world
Companies: facebook


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  • identicon
    Grammar Polize, 13 Sep 2019 @ 10:52am

    On sale or at scale?

    Curious minds want to know....

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Sep 2019 @ 10:55am

    I have a foolproof three-step solution:

    1. Dissolve all legislative bodies
    2. Dissolve all judicial bodies
    3. Dissolve all executive bodies

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    N. Ockuous, 13 Sep 2019 @ 1:00pm

    Seem to have this piece locked down.

    This'll be my 10th attempt to get in -- on a Masnick piece, near always those this happens...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    N. Ockuous, 13 Sep 2019 @ 1:01pm

    You LOVE your straw-men!

    Here you fabricate opponents whom you'd "bet" and "guess" what they'd do if real:

    various US Senators and some prudish panelists [whom you are] guessing they would not have approved of Courbet's work showing up on Facebook at all.

    Blatant straw-man.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      N. Ockuous, 13 Sep 2019 @ 1:01pm

      Re: You LOVE your straw-men!

      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.

      No, the latter are simply your imagination in which you're always right and triumphant.

      There is no right answer, which is kind of the point.

      NO, that's not the sitch, so YOUR claim of "impossible" is false.

      IF were impossible, then either gone entirely or allowed everywhere, right? Yet that's not what happened. Therefore some POSSIBLE occurred. YOU ARE FLATLY WRONG.


      YUP. Required innocuous leader AND piecing up AND the magic of "Resend". NOT coincidence.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Stephen T. Stone (profile), 13 Sep 2019 @ 1:07pm

        When Facebook must deal with two “sides”, both wielding enormous power, on whether a certain image or certain kind of content can/should be on Facebook, no choice Facebook makes will please everybody. Facebook can’t choose the “right” answer in such situations because there is no objectively correct answer.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Gary (profile), 13 Sep 2019 @ 1:13pm

          Re:

          If it's so easy, I'm sure Blue Balls can cite some examples of how he handles moderation on his site?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 13 Sep 2019 @ 1:16pm

          Re:

          Well, they could enable the account in France and disable it in the US or anywhere else that objects. Of course this would create confusion for those in France who correspond with folks elsewhere, and it would be fairly simple to put some sort of sign on the account naming names of countries that rule differently on the same subject.

          To what end I don't know but it might highlight the issue, to the consternation of all.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Bruce C., 13 Sep 2019 @ 6:05pm

          Re:

          ...and that doesn't even take into account the conflicting "legally correct" answers that result when the same set of facts are interpreted in different countries. Facebook's decisions would be much simpler if it only allowed sharing within each individual country and everybody outside was geo-blocked, but that would eliminate the value of the platform for international users. And (at least with current tech) would be easy to circumvent.

          We seem to be headed in that direction in the short term, anyway. The main response of the incumbent powers to the industrial revolution was denial of rights to the working class, resulting in Marxism and the revolutions of the 1840s (and to some extent, the US civil war).

          The initial response of modern incumbent powers to the social upheaval caused by the internet seems to be nationalism and censorship. Who knows what the results of that suppression will be 20-30 years from now?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Sep 2019 @ 7:02pm

        Re: Re:

        Wipe that Cary Sherman off your face, blue. Nobody needs to see your shit.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Sep 2019 @ 7:13pm

    Kinda sad that "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge" is still relevant nearly thirty years later.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 13 Sep 2019 @ 8:58pm

    I'm not sure why France thinks it can win this war. History says, they should just give up.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2019 @ 12:53pm

    what's annoying is...

    facebook will throw your account in jail for an uncovered breast, but seems totally powerless to stop the floods of fake Ray Bans spam, spam for pirated movies, and garbage apps like BBQ App and OMG App. Notice you cannot hide Nametests either?

    Trash.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Christenson, 15 Sep 2019 @ 12:28am

    Moderation needs to be in some sense local...

    In all cases, moderation is an act of selection...what will be seen, by whom, and what will not??

    Meaning that the correct answer to the "at scale" moderation problem is to create smaller domains where moderation is possible, and to find ways to crowdsource it, rather than to displace the true costs onto low-wage workers. You post on facebook?? Well, rate a little content, just as we do on Techdirt with the voting system.

    The smaller domains will, of course, make mistakes on an individual basis, but there are then more available domains.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 Sep 2019 @ 1:57am

      Re: Moderation needs to be in some sense local...

      Be careful about a desire to break the Internet into small domains, as that will serve the politicians better than the people by reducing and slowing the spread of ideas. Also to be considered, is that where grouping have formed on the Internet, they are based of shared interests rather then nation or race, with similar implications for moderating all but the more trollish or extreme speech.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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