Flickr lifts ban partly, but: too little too late!

It is strange that just about a week has passed since the revolt of Flickr users has started against the censorship practices of the popular Yahoo! owned photo sharing site. It certainly feels much longer. A quick wrap-up what has happened so far:

  1. Thousands of protest pictures have been uploaded to the Flickr service, clogging up user groups and making it even to Explore, the exhibition of the most interesting photos of the site.
  2. 10,000s of photos have been removed from the service by its members in preparation to leave the service, while thousands of users have opened new accounts with other services.
  3. The press have covered the topic widely across the world.
  4. A discussion thread of 4,976 posts had been created containing mostly critical comments and questions towards Flickr and Yahoo! management.
  5. The official German youth protection authority, jugendschutz.net, has told the press that the filters implemented by Yahoo! “exceed what is legally required” in Germany.

During the whole week Flickr management has been unable to provide satisfying answers to their member base. While they announced they were “trying to hammer out a solution”, the silence continued even following the statement from jugendschutz.net, a fact that has made Flickr and Yahoo! the laughing stock of its critics.

Today Stewart Butterfield, one of the company officials, has broken the silence and announced that Flickr have lifted their filters partly. The system itself remains unchanged for the time being, but from now on photos that are flagged as “moderate” can be seen by German users again. The filter settings apparently remain unchanged for users in Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong, where users were not as vocal as in Germany.

In a further update, Butterfield provides some insights into how the present solution was determined:

I’m not sitting in my office in California guessing at German laws, but working with local counsel in our German office (in-house and external) and elsewhere in the EU, along with German management and policy teams.

Nonetheless, the service is now facing further questions from the users, who think that the solution is lame and far from being satisfying – “too little, too late” is one of the complaints. The major concern remains that the efficiency of the filter solely depends on users labeling their photos correctly as “safe”, “moderate” or “restricted”. This, however, depends largely on the cultural background and does not take into account the legal requirements of specific countries like Germany. While showing a Nazi flag in the public is regarded as perfectly “safe” in the U.S. for example, it is strictly prohibited in Germany. Users with German accounts will still be able to access such photos, making the filter pretty much useless in terms of legal protection for Flickr. Also, instead of implementing a suitable age-verification system along a more refined filter, the solution presented by Flickr management is seen by the users as half-baked and embarrassing.

Over the week, the user base of Flickr continued to detoriate. Statistics provided by Flickr.com indicate that those using semi-professional and professional cameras have stopped contributing photos to the service. Here is a chart showing, for example, the share of uploads over the past 12 months of those using highly popular Canon DSLR camera models like the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT (aka 350D) and XTi (aka 400D):

Canon Cameras becoming less popular with Flickr users
Source: flickr.com

The graphs look similar for other major camera manufacturers, and critics of the censorship celebrate this as victory over Flickr. They claim that those users who contributed the most interesting pictures (from a photographic point-of-view) either hold back their uploads or have already turned away from Flickr. But only Flickr knows the real numbers, and the damage caused by the unfortunate censorship debate.

Critics say that Flickr already lost the battle, regardless of having lifted the filter to some extend. The damage has been done, and the trust has been lost within the community. And thus, over the weekend, the blogosphere has already begun discussing where to go, not if to go. Flickr seems to be a bit tired of the discussion as well. Staff member George Oates says:

“Seriously – if people are so entirely upset by what we’re doing here, they should look for a place that suits them better.”

Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Flickr, explains in an update:

“From my position, as the one responsible for the decisions we make, I know that we have to take into account the biggest picture and the longest view. And that’s what we do – it’s just not going to be for everyone.”

(Please make sure to also read this translation of Butterfield’s post.)

And so the censorship discussion will leave its traces within the service: where once talented semi-professionals and professionals presented their portfolios to the world, now moms and pops will share and discuss snapshots of their families and pets. While this target group is certainly much easier to manage, the service has lost its appeal to many who contributed to its success.

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