Facebook Should Deploy “Advanced Nudity Controls,” Not Censorship

A trailer for a provocative Australian comedy about “race, Aboriginality, and discrimination” was banned from Facebook in mid-April because it contains very brief images of elderly Aboriginal women dancing topless in a traditional ceremony. You can view the trailer below.

Rachel Clements, co-creator of the movie 8MMM, told the Sydney Morning Herald that she “was stunned” by Facebook’s decision.

I’ve moved from anger to disappointment to just bewilderment, really. I just think it’s silly and disrespectful to the women who were dancing for us. Out of all the reasons we could have been pulled, nudity is not high on the list. It’s ridiculous.

Facebook has been under fire over the last several months regarding its seemingly arbitrary and erratically enforced policy regarding nudity on the global social media site. Back in March, Facebook announced a series of changes to its Community Standards including, among other things, its handling of nudity.

People sometimes share content containing nudity for reasons like awareness campaigns or artistic projects. We restrict the display of nudity because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content – particularly because of their cultural background or age. In order to treat people fairly and respond to reports quickly, it is essential that we have policies in place that our global teams can apply uniformly and easily when reviewing content. As a result, our policies can sometimes be more blunt than we would like and restrict content shared for legitimate purposes. We are always working to get better at evaluating this content and enforcing our standards.

We remove photographs of people displaying genitals or focusing in on fully exposed buttocks. We also restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipple, but we always allow photos of women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures. Restrictions on the display of both nudity and sexual activity also apply to digitally created content unless the content is posted for educational, humorous, or satirical purposes. Explicit images of sexual intercourse are prohibited. Descriptions of sexual acts that go into vivid detail may also be removed.

While it is good that Facebook has taken steps to clarify its policy, particularly with respect to breastfeeding photos, it is still trying to establish a one-size-fits-all approach to this difficult issue. There is, however, a much better way for Facebook to handle this issue.

Since Facebook’s launch in 2004, it has grappled with the issue of personal privacy; notwithstanding the fact that Facebook is a public social media service, users still expect to have the ability to control the spread of their information (which I have long argued is the core definition of “the right to privacy“).

In response to that consumer demand, Facebook has created increasingly granular privacy controls that allow users to regulate nearly every aspect of access to their Facebook activity. Among the items users can regulate are:

  • Who can see your future posts?
  • Review all your posts and things you’re tagged in
  • Limit the audience for posts you’ve shared with friends of friends or Public?
  • Who can send you friend requests?
  • Whose messages do I want filtered into my Inbox?
  • Who can look you up using the email address you provided? (and so on)

If you want to check your own privacy settings on Facebook, click here.

It seems to me that if Facebook can offer this level of detailed privacy control to its users, it could fairly easily do the same thing for nudity. An appropriate checklist might include:

  • No nudity at all — Yes or No [Possible default answer]
  • Only Facebook-sanctioned nudity — Yes or No
  • I am comfortable viewing the following:
    • Bare-Breasted or Bare-Bottomed Men — Yes or No
    • Bare-Breasted or Bare-Bottomed Women — Yes or No
    • Bare-Breasted or Bare-Bottomed Men and/or Women Together — Yes or No
    • Completely Nude Men — Yes or No
    • Completely Nude Women — Yes or No
    • Completely Nude Men and/or Women Together — Yes or No
    • Kissing — Yes or No
    • Sexual Activity — Yes or No
  • etc.

I doubt that there is any serious technical barrier preventing Facebook from implementing something like this, and as photo-recognition algorithms get increasingly sophisticated, the company’s servers will be more than capable of determining the contents of the images that are uploaded by users (although I suspect they are pretty good already). Undoubtedly, there would be costs associated with creating and implementing nudity controls, but I doubt that they would be prohibitive, particularly when offset by the advertising revenues that could be generated.

The real problem lies in Facebook’s view of itself as a “global community,” as if all billion-plus users live in the same virtual village where a single inappropriate image will cause outrage and uproar. Facebook, however, is not a resource that we experience globally or communally; it is a global service that we experience individually, based on our friends, our likes, our interests, and whatever flavor of newsfeed algorithm Facebook happens to be running today.

As a result, if Facebook offered individual nudity controls that permitted users to see an advertisement or trailer for a movie like 8MMM, it would not cause any harm or offense to the “global community.” It would only be viewable by the people who had specifically opted in to see content of that nature, and no one else.

Facebook’s current community standards, while generally well-meaning, are deeply paternalistic and, of course, completely changeable at the company’s whim. The company should trust its users to make their own decisions about the level of nudity with which they are personally comfortable, and give them the tools to implement that decision.

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