Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Who watches the watchers?

Following up on the other day, let's see what effect the Internet Watch Foundation's censorship of Wikipedia has had. Traffic to the Virgin Killer article skyrocketed in two days and half a million people suddenly needed to see what all the fuss was about. Clearly, most of them never would have cared about a 32-year-old release by a heavy metal band. That's the kind of attention ham-handed censorship efforts bring.

And it's sad, because nearly everyone does sympathize with IWF's fundamental goal of combatting child pornography. So The Guardian reports IWF is reconsidering its decision. That's a good sign but it's not enough, because it leaves me wondering how many of the other 10,000 censorship decisions IWF makes each year are equally loopy. Either it's never been wrong before (not bloody likely) or there's a serious lack of oversight and appeal.

I had my own run-in with censorship a few months ago. Not with the IWF but with Facebook. And to this day it remains unresolved. It started innocently enough. I do a lot of image restoration volunteer work for Wikipedia. Quite a few of those had been selected as featured pictures. So I created a few Facebook photo albums, one of which was exclusively for my Wikipedia featured image work.

After a few months, without warning, the Facebook staff sent a nasty notice and blocked my access to the featured picture album. The notice offered no means of appeal. When I located a feedback email address at their site (which wasn't easy) and attempted to appeal, they didn't reply.

The image here seems to be the source of their complaint. I can't tell for certain because I prefer to give up access to that gallery than to acknowledge the Facebook team's accusation. The poster comes from the 1866 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race and the text of the full size image is an appeal to white voters to oppose voting rights for African-Americans. It's history--undoubtedly a distateful bit of history--but it's important to document how blatant those attitudes were a century and a half ago.

This image ran on Wikipedia's main page on June 29, 2008 where it received 17.3 million page views without any complaint. It currently appears at the articles racism, John W. Geary, Hiester Clymer, Disfranchisement after Reconstruction era (United States), and as a selected picture at Wikipedia's featured Civil War portal.

If it makes you feel any better, Clymer the racist lost that election. Real bigotry is appalling; I'm not it. I've also done featured restorations of African-American Civil War soldiers, postwar buffalo soldiers, and a portrait of Harriet Tubman.

What's scary is that in our own era, despite obvious encyclopedic value, somebody at Facebook decided to censor the wrong stuff. There's no way of telling who or why; no way to appeal the decision or correct their error. Both Facebook and IWF are equally prone to trolling and gaming in their attempts to manage inappropriate content because neither organization acknowledges that it might not be right every time. Once they make a decision--short of an outcry in the press--there's no appeal.

Update: the IWF has ended its censorship of Wikipedia, per their appeals procedure. What they haven't done is implemented a rational way of initiating an appeal. Since they don't report their decisions in the first place, most of the 10,000 sites they go after each year never even know they've been targeted. Nor is there any independent watchdog to second guess their choices.


Dan said...

Context is pretty important in such cases... what's OK in an encyclopedia article documenting past racism or past albums with naked kids on the cover might be less OK in current advocacy for racist viewpoints or an attempt to promote kiddie porn. Heavyhanded censorship tends to ignore such subtle distinctions.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting that stats page, that's pretty impressive. And sorry to hear about your Facebook experience. I see Facebook as a (somewhat) necessary evil. I participate to some degree, because so many of my friends do; but I don't generally like their approach to much of anything. (By the way, I suspect that if you look closely at their image policy, it's probably not permissible for you to upload copyleft stuff that you don't personally own the copyright to.)

Oh and by the way, hideous cover aside, Virgin Killer is an awesome album.

Hope you're having a great holiday season!

Joshua said...

Ridiculous political correctness over examinations of history are depressingly common. See for example the case of Keith John Sampson who was accused of racial harassment for reading a book about the history of the Klu Klux Klan and its fall from power in Indiana: