The world according to Sven-S. Porst
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This sounds a bit melodramatic, but the story which has been getting German Flickr users quite enraged in the past week – and probably went unnoticed in most other places (as the images vanished from Flickr’s overview and interesting-whatever places fairly quickly) is about the following: Flickr decided to remove the ability to see all photos on the service from their German users. All photos which have been marked anything but ‘Safe’ cannot be seen.
Obviously this is idiotic. Probably not just idiotic, but much more than that. It’s so bad that I don’t even know where to start bitching about it. So I’ll try to keep this short and just put up a few points.
- Legalese: I guess it’s safe to assume that what they are doing is legal in some way somewhere. After all the site belongs to Yahoo who aren’t exactly small and have survived for a long time (although it’s unclear to me how as I can’t remember using any of their services or being tempted to do so since 1995 or so). Which makes me think that they are probably feeding enough lawyers to keep their butts sufficiently covered.
- Ill Communication: Not telling people about things beforehand is bad style. Feeding people statements that sound like PR drool rather than making sense, won’t make anyone happier. Particularly in that all-so-cosy web-2 world which Flickr want to live in. (Although I assume that taking initiative is also taught as a good strategy in
corprate lying PR-101.)
- Manners: And if Flickr don’t want to block you from seeing photos why don’t they clearly indicate that some photos are missing in what they show you and why you cannot access them? I think that would make a huge difference.
- Flagging: This is the main problem. While Flickr look like they provide a general photo service, they actually don’t. They want (if you read the fine-print, probably even require) you to ‘flag’ your photo in case it could be offensive to anyone. Allegedly they also have ways to mark an account as ‘unsafe’ if its owner doesn’t follow the rules as they think he should. Which means there must be some ‘Blockwart’-people running around making sure that everything is done ‘right’. And of course there’s always a handy button to turn in wrongdoers. Brave new world!
- Flagging and Filtering: My point of view would be that any flagging is silly. It just doesn’t make sense to deny that the internet is full of pretty much anything you can come up with. And if you want to see it, you will. At the same time – in my experience at least – you don’t ‘accidentally’ run into objectable content. That’s just a myth. In short: I don’t even see the point of doing this.
- Flagging and Cultures: I particularly don’t see the point of this as you would need a really precise rating system to really cover all the different things that the various cultures (ie those of all the world) may find offensive. Apparently people in the U.S. have (or are supposed to have) a problem with breasts. Most of Europe is a bit more relaxed there. On the other hand, Germany has problems with displaying Nazi symbols or propaganda and you will be sued for doing that – while in the U.S. they are more into free speech and will allow such things happily. I am sure you will find plenty of other taboos around the world once you start looking. So how finely grained should such a filter be? The problem of course being that the requirement to classify a picture in detail will just put people off and they will stop filling the form or posting the photos.
- The Blame: In whatever little Flickr communicated to the outside, they just vaguely said that age-verification laws in Germany are stricter than elsewhere and they need to oblige to that. In particular, they claim their German staff would be at risk of going to prison. Whiners! No details are given. And a few facts make this seem implausible. Most notably the facts that Flickr could offer the full service to ‘Germans’ until last week without running into trouble and that other sites offer similar photos without having legal problems.
- The Law: This isn’t to say that German internet laws aren’t fucked up. Those laws are sufficiently bad or old fashioned to keep leagues of lawyers well nourished at the expense of people wanting to use the internet. There is no ‘fair use’ as in the U.S. which gives people a bit of leeway to work with stuff they find on the internet. Publishing photos of people can get you into trouble unless they are of ‘public interest’ (I am not totally sure about the details but I’ve been told you can’t even put photos from a party on the web unless you have written releases of everyone or know them well enough that they won’t sue you as long as those images are online). And of course, most funny one: Every business (or possibly even sort-of business)-related site needs an imprint with a snail mail address. If you don’t have that some lawyer can hunt you down and through the magic of their legal system enrich himself on that. Finally, some particularly smart judges think that someone running a web site should be held responsible for everything said on there. Which obviously puts any site publishing comments at risk.
- The Law vs. Flickr: Particularly that last verdict was assumed to be a reason for what Flickr decided to do. But at least from a normal person’s point of view it’s hard to see how their actions should be related to that. To be really on the safe side they would have had to stop all uploads and comments, but keeping people from seeing some (somewhat randomly chosen) photos and leaving comments just doesn’t seem like a reasonable way of covering orifices in that context.
- International: Another thing that really confuses me is the international aspect of all this. While Flickr now want to shift the blame on German law, I am sure that their site happily ignores the restrictions imposed by German law otherwise: I didn’t spot an imprint link on the site, people say that there are plenty of Nazi symbols and I am pretty sure Flickr are keen to store all their data in the U.S. and prefer to not care about the stricter data protection required in Germany. So – assuming that a problematic German law does in fact exist for the sake of the argument – why are they worried about this detail? If there are ways to weasel your way out of the other requirements, getting out of this one shouldn’t be a problem either.
Language: Somehow Flickr statements on the topic always include the notice that they are offering their service in German now. I have seen worse localisations than Flickr but the English version just remains more usable. But that’s just a display language anyway. I fail to see how this is in any way relevant for their legal status. I’m sure an English site could be sued just as well in Germany, just as a foreign site can feel free to publish their stuff in German.
Implementation/Incompetence: Somehow Flickr don’t really enforce this limitation for their German accounts anyway. The first question here would of course be what makes an account ‘German’. And while this question can still be answered for physical retail – amazon will ship some items to certain countries only, for example – it is borderline idiotic when it comes to online services. We first learned this when the iTunes store opened which lets you only use the version of the country your credit card’s address lives in. Google, on the other hand (who may not use the gmail name in Germany due to some trade mark thingy), seem to believe that your current location indicates the country you are in. Which means you’ll have to ask a friend in a suitable foreign country to create that gmail account for you if you don’t want a ‘googlemail.com’ address. And Flickr seem to have opted for an even simpler way of doing things: If you are registered with yahoo.de (Flickr require you to have a Yahoo account to log in), your account is German, if you aren’t, it’s not. Simple as that. This prevents exactly nothing. So they aren’t even serious about doing things right.
All right, that’s about it. I fail to see the point, I fail to see what exactly they actually do, I fail to see why they do it. They just do it.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that this happens. Good to bring a bit reality into that overly cheerful web2 world. Good to be reminded that the big (and small) corporations running this game are in it for your amusement only if it happens to align with theirs.
While I enjoy things like the Black and White groups on Flickr, I have always been weary about putting my data on their servers. As those just don’t provide sufficient control and my data aren’t actually mine anymore once they are with them. The same is true for any other ‘social networking’ site of course. And I have been wondering a bit recently to which extent such networking sites could work in a decentralised way. A way where I store all the relevant data on my server with some of standardised information file and a search engine will just pick things up and provide ways to syndicate images or comments just as sites like Flickr do today.
All that said, just look at this photo. It may sum up things sufficiently. And don’t forget:
Flickr loves you!
June 20, 2007, 0:32