08 July 2008


From the series The Romanian Way (July 2007).
Photograph © Maarten Dors.

This post comes compliments of my friend Henry Farrell who passed along this story from Reason detailing the ongoing vicissitudes of this photograph (a 13 year old Romanian boy smoking a cigarette) on Flickr. It has been removed and then replaced apparently due to corporate uncertainty about whether it violates the site's rules of appropriateness. You can find Dors's Flicker page here. The bizarre episode began, according to Dors, when he received the following email summarily announcing that the image had been removed from his site.

Hi Maarten Dors,

Images of children under the age of 18 who are smoking tobacco
is prohibited across all of Yahoo's properties. I've gone ahead
and deleted the image "The Romanian Way" from your
photostream. We appreciate your understanding.

The Reason piece uses this case to illustrate the complexities and vulnerabilities of posting on Internet sites like Flickr which is owned by Yahoo. It seems pretty outrageous to have corporately based morals police deciding what counts at appropriate or not. (In the Dors case, for instance, he points out that there are other images in the same series showing young kids sniffing glue. The Flickr-folk did not object to those.)

That said, I must admit that I am not a big fan of "community" as a governance mechanism. As Amy Gutmann once quipped 'Communitarians want us all to live in Salem but not believe in witches.' Decentralization and community are attractive only so long as they are not shot through with asymmetries of resources that differentially situated parties can rely on to insure that interactions work out to their own advantage. This seems to me to be true in real world situations (see the essay in Pranab Bardhan. Scarcity, Conflicts & Cooperation. MIT Press, 2004) and there seems to be no reason to think the virtual world is qualitatively different in that respect.

In all likelihood the folks at Reason would take a different view of this matter. But there are (at least) two important features of the Dors case. First, Yahoo/Flickr is a private not a governmental operation. A public entity arguably would be more accountable than a corporate decider like Terrence. Second, we would always want to ask 'what is the alternative'. Given a choice between community standards and corporate morality police, and absent some credibly responsive public governance structure, I don't like any one's chances.

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