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Facebook pulls naked smutty filth from NY Academy of Art page

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Facebook is in the doghouse again – and this time it is none other than the New York Academy of Art taking them to task for their online censoriousness.

The dispute has rumbled onward in the Academy's official blog since the end of January, when Facebook notified the administrator of the Academy's official Facebook page that the social network was removing a drawing by Steven Assael – on the grounds that it violated terms and conditions.

This was followed by a block on the Academy uploading ANY image for seven days – presumably on the grounds that they were known repeat offenders.

The fact that this work is currently in an exhibition curated by the Academy and shown at the Eden Rock Gallery in St Barths was no defence. It included nudity – and that was that.

This did not go down well with the art school, which came back with some polite fighting talk. The school wrote: "As an institution of higher learning with a long tradition of upholding the art world’s 'traditional values and skills', we, the Graduate School of Figurative Art, find it difficult to allow Facebook to be the final arbiter – and online curator – of the artwork we share with the world.

"If Facebook is a new online Salon de Paris, where a faceless group of 'curators' determine what artwork the public should see, well then please consider our website the Salon de Refusés!"

Tempting fate, the Academy also asked: "If it begins with Steven Assael, a modern master, who's next?"

Facebook promptly answered that question by removing works from the accounts of two more Academy alumni – Richard Scott and John Wellington.

The debate continued on the Academy site, with two recognisable sides swiftly emerging. On the one hand, it is Facebook’s site and the social network gets to make the rules. On the other, contributors echoed points made in El Reg yesterday, responding to Facebook’s recent ban on a bdsm website – Collared (NSFW).

The second group, commenting on the Academy's site, argued that Facebook’s dominant position online means it bears a heavier responsibility than "any old website": if Facebook chooses to impose a particular standard, be it moral, aesthetic or other, that decision has significant cultural clout.

This is the same complaint that could be heard from the administrator of the Collared page: if they wish to apply rules, could they please be transparent and consistent.

As one poster on the art school's site put it: "Fans of both artists have speculated on the protocol used for determining which images are removed.

"From 'algorhythmic [sic] programming' to a 'facebook censor control department' or even 'a titty and crotch recognition program and it's nothing personal', and finally an inculpable '[facebook] depends on users [to report] violations', the criteria that surrounds how the images are 'curated' seems indeterminable."

As always, Facebook responded swiftly with an apology and a re-instatement. Facebook spokesman Simon Axten explained that the site bans nude photographs, but the company has "an unwritten policy" that allows drawings or sculptures of nudes. The company only reviews images following a complaint – and sometimes gets things wrong.

Whether this will satisfy the various groups that Facebook has offended of late – including breastfeeding mums and would-be collared slaves – is a moot point. There can be no doubt that balancing the rights of those who would wish Facebook to be a child-friendly "safe" environment against those with lesser propensity to be offended is an important, but thankless, task.

However, users are not happy with the proliferation of "unwritten policies". Responding to complaints about the removal of the Collared page, a spokeswoman told us yesterday that "Fetish content is not allowed on Facebook". That may be so – but that particular clause doesn't seem to be anywhere in the T&Cs.

Increasing pressure from government for internet imagery to be censored along lines analogous to film censorship means that far from going away, this is a question that will become more prominent in the coming months.

On the evidence to date, Facebook have yet to come up with a workable solution. ®

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