19 September 2007

My Conversation with Facebook

Rather than insert a bunch of new commentary on Facebook's banning of a breastfeeding pic while allowing 350 pro-anorexia groups at this point, I think I'll just print the emails to and from Facebook verbatim. I will keep the name of the person I corresponded with confidential, and I should stress that the person was prompt, professional, and courteous.

For background, I've written about this here, here, and here. My wife discussed some of the scientific data on "pro-ana" sites and offered some really helpful advice here.

So here goes, the email I sent at 8:02am Wednesday:

Hello -

I'm David Wescott and I'm a member of Facebook. I write a column for Business Lexington called "Living Locally, Working Globally." I also write a blog called " It's Not a Lecture." The Lexington, KY network on Facebook is rather robust, as you may know. You may also know that last month a local Applebee's forced a woman out of their restaurant because she was breastfeeding. This sparked a national protest and it continues to be a topic of discussion on the national level.

I was surprised to read reports in the Canadian media that Facebook had banned a member because she had posted pictures of herself breastfeeding her child. I noticed a newsworthy disconnect when I also learned via BBC and Canadian media sites that Facebook has roughly 350 "pro-ana" groups not only condoning anorexia but suggesting ways for people (young girls suffer from anorexia disproportionately) to continue to starve themselves. Recent research published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that visiting "pro-ana" websites made women feel
negative emotions and have poor social self-esteem. I am not aware of any scientific data that suggests looking at pictures of breastfeeding women elicits similar emotions or responses.

I have written about this disconnect on my blog and I'm planning to write a column on the free speech implications - specifically how a social networking site would clamp down on speech and activity on the issue of breastfeeding but not on "pro-anorexia" groups. I want to give you an opportunity to respond - explain your policy, perhaps give some background on the situation that I may be missing. I am aware that there are many pro-breastfeeding groups on Facebook. I am also aware of a new protest group with several thousand members.

I would appreciate a statement or comment from you regarding this specific speech issue and the apparent disconnect here. Please email me at [email address] by Thursday, 5pm ET with any statement or relevant details, or feel free to call me at [cellphone]. Thanks much.

Here's what I got back:

Hi David,

Facebook does allow mothers to upload and share photos of themselves breastfeeding their babies, and those photos remain available on Facebook as long as they follow the site’s Terms of Use. Photos containing a fully exposed breast do violate those Terms and could be removed. Facebook’s Terms of Use can be found here: http://facebook.com/terms.php

Please attribute this statement to Facebook or a Facebook spokesperson.



So I wrote back:

Thanks [name] - I appreciate the quick response.

Did the specific case reported in the Edmonton media last week involve a case that violated this policy?

And do you have any statement regarding "pro-ana" groups on Facebook?

I also called at this point asking for clarification on the Edmonton case, and I was referred to the earlier email. I think this is because Facebook's privacy policy probably prevents them from discussing issues regarding a specific member, which I totally understand and respect. Within a few minutes I received this:

Hi David,

Facebook supports the free flow of information, and groups provide a forum for discussing important issues. Many Facebook groups relate to controversial topics; this alone is not a reason to disable a group. Facebook considers whether the content on wall posts and discussion boards of groups offer opinions on both sides of the issue. In cases where content is reported and found to violate the site’s Terms of Use, Facebook will remove it.

Please attribute to Facebook or a Facebook spokesperson.

I think I'll just open it up here at this point for discussion, and then I may add some thoughts of my own later. And I do plan on writing a column about this. But I thought it was important and fair to get Facebook's comments out there, verbatim, in public - and I pledge to pass on anything else they send me.


Motherhood Uncensored said...

So they have 'no pictures of breastfeeding' in their rules?


Please. I'm surprised such a "forward thinking" or at least, what might be perceived as that, company would have such black and white rules.

But I forget who runs their company.

Apparently they *are* trying to make Facebook the next Myspace.

I thought they were bigger than that.

All hail half naked teenyboppers reuniting with their sorority sisters.

Anonymous said...

Wow...that's an awful lot of words to say exactly nothing.

And now, to get picky and technical, there generally is no fully exposed breast when a baby is breastfeeding because the nipple is IN THE BABY'S MOUTH!

Isn't that the standard they use on TV and in rating movies and in cheesy magazines like FHM? Anything but the nipple is okay?

Well, if that's the case then I fail to see the problem.

As noted, the baby has to put the nipple in it's mouth to eat. The rest is actually, by general media standards, to not be enough boobage to warrant any censorship whatsoever.

In the grand scheme of things, Facebook is small time and because of these types of nonsense policies, they always will be.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Facebook should DEFINE what they mean by "fully exposed breast" first before they hassle people and then hide behind their precious and yet so very vague "Terms of Use".

Anonymous said...

Ugh, disgusting scared little bean counters control everything of any value don't they?

Like in the Janet Jackson case, the world is supposed to be shocked at the acknowledgement that women have nipples, leaving aside for the moment the fact that the human nipple actually has a utile function.

Yet, if you are a WWF wrestler or fan, you can post all the man booby you want, replete with nipples, and if you're lucky, freeflowing fake blood drenching the aforementioned man-boobs.

But it seems Facebook has miscalculated badly this time. For they are not hiding behind some sort of "no nudity" policy that offers blanket coverage to the issue. No, they have a policy that has been tailored to breastfeeding mothers. As if the La Leche league is going to formulate a conspiracy to take over your children's minds.

If they have a policy that means somebody with a name and position had to formulate that policy and did so as a result of a deliberative process. None of which augurs well for Facebook when they are taken to court by pissed off nursing moms, which I hope happens toute suite. Lawyers and their partners have babies too.

Lawyer Mama said...

Well, David, it sounds like you got the royal blow off. I'm glad that they were polite and prompt, but they didn't really answer your question. As Izzy pointed out, there's no way a picture of a baby breastfeeding could actually contain a "fully exposed breast." But, I'm preaching to the choir here, I know. I'll be sure to send my concerns to Facebook directly.

Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

Lawyer Mama said...

Argh. I couldn't help myself. The lawyer in me made me actually read the Terms of Use.

Under the Terms of Use, users agree not to:

"upload, post, transmit, share, store or otherwise make available any content that we deem to be harmful, threatening, unlawful, defamatory, infringing, abusive, inflammatory, harassing, vulgar, obscene, fraudulent, invasive of privacy or publicity rights, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable;"

The Code of Conduct says this about Inappropriate Conduct:

"While we believe users should be able to express themselves and their point of view, certain kinds of speech simply do not belong in a community like Facebook. Therefore, you may not post or share Content that:

* is obscene, pornographic or sexually explicit
* depicts graphic or gratuitous violence
* makes threats of any kind or that intimidates, harasses, or bullies anyone
* is derogatory, demeaning, malicious, defamatory, abusive, offensive or hateful"

Honestly, I don't see how even a fully exposed breast (if one happened to be exposed during breastfeeding) could fall under this definition unless company policy makes it so, unless "we" meaning Facebook deems it so. That's exactly what their Terms of Use say.

However, I think pro-ana groups, which one could argue are "harmful" certainly could fall under the definition even without Facebook exercising its "discretion."

Facebook has a lot of explaining to do.

Now I'm all pissed off again.

Anonymous said...

How odd. Is a woman breastfeeding her own child "harmful, threatening, unlawful, defamatory, infringing, abusive, inflammatory, harassing, vulgar, obscene, fraudulent, invasive of privacy or publicity rights, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable;

Better not have a Facebook discussion group about who painted this Dutch artwork either http://tinyurl.com/377bzg

Anonymous said...

Isn't anorexia a form of self-abuse? I would think that also falls under the "harmful or abusive" text in the terms of use.

This is disgusting. Especially considering there is nothing obscene, pornographic, or sexually explicit about a baby nursing. The breast isn't even fully exposed!

I can't help but wonder if their vagueness is just a way to force people to go searching for more information on the debate, which means more clicks and more revenue for Facebook.

Anonymous said...

hi - visiting from mothehood uncensored.

what. a. joke. there are thousands of photos on FB that violate their ToU. there are also many (if not thousands, too) groups that could be deemed "harmful" . . . but gawd! forbid a NIPPLE (gasp!) from a nursing mother been posted!!!

(i agree: a properly positioned nursing baby does not allow for there to be a fully exposed boob. i nursed 2 kids over a 4 year span and the only people who complained about it were my (now ex) in-laws - and they didn't know jack shite about nursing.

Anonymous said...

For anyone who is interested in seeing exactly WHAT Facebook considers obscene, pornographic et al, here is a link to one of the ACTUAL photos that was removed.

Sorry, but I see NO breast exposure whatsoever. In fact, you see more at the beach or on the cover Cosmo.

But see for yourself and then decide:


PunditMom said...

I'm glad to see that the communications people at Facebook are so concerned and "responsive!" Is this policy a result of a company that's run by a bunch of young guys, or something more problematic about our culture and what it considers offensive when it comes to women's bodies?

I'm sure their lawyers drafted them some generic terms of service, but they're the ones interpreting them.

They're not going to care what we have to say about any of this until it hurts them in the wallet or their nonsensical interpretation sees the light of 60 Minutes.

Mom101 said...

Couldn't this be easily rectified by changing their policies from describing the percentage of a breast that may be shown to simply banning sexually explicit photos?

I think intent goes a long way here. Girls gone wild flashing boobs = sexually explicit. Mom breastfeeding = um, not really.

Maybe this is just another case of lawyers ruining everything. (Sorry Lawyer Mama!)

Anonymous said...

Beyond the "picture" debate, I find their lack of any response on the "pro-ana" groups is really, as far as my opinion's concerned, totally unacceptable. A "controversial topic"? Give me a break.

I don't think anorexia is a "controversial topic." In fact, I'm pretty sure that the jury's come back with a verdict on that one, no?

The fact that they're so dismissive of it is what angers me the most. "Oh, well, we don't really care about that at all," etc.

- Brad

Anonymous said...

Hey Facebook!

What about pro-cutting groups? Got any of those?

Controversial, just like pro-ana. Harmful, just like pro-ana.

Anonymous said...

One of my commenters said that there are a ton of anti-gay hate groups on Facebook, too.

While I may be a bit wrapped up in the exact definition of "fully exposed breast" (because it does matter) the bottom line is that Facebook will pick and choose what it thinks is good, bad, acceptable, not acceptable, obscene or not obscene.

That said, the fact that they deem pro-ana and anti-gay hate groups to be okay but not breastfeeding breasts that you can't even see speaks volumes about the kind of people we're dealing with here.

They won't take the high road. They don't even know what it is.

Take their money away from them and they might see things differently.

A think a boycott of all Facebook's advertisers might be most effective.

Unknown said...

I like Izzy's point of boycotting Facebook's advertisers, along with letters/emails to each company telling them they are being boycotted and why. I don't have a Facebook account. Anybody know WHO their major advertisers are and would be willing to post them for all of us to see and boycott?

josetteplank.com said...

Do you know that there is an episode of Mr. Rogers where he shows different animals feeding their babies on Picture Picture? And the final shots are of human mothers breastfeeding babies. From what I recall, it was not discreet, either.

I'm trying to find which episode number that was.

But, you know, Mr. Rogers sets the benchmark for obscene, offensive behavior, so perhaps a bad comparison. Facebook? I let my one year old view it a few hours each morning before snack time.

Tere said...

I have an account on Facebook and there are 2 ways to look at "major advertisers": the banner ads and the applications you can add to your profile.

Clicking around, I saw banners for Monster and Jobster, military.com, AT&T, Verizon, Ditech and Embassy Suites Hotels.

In doing a quick news search, Wal-Mart, GM, Pepsi and Reebok come up as majors; and Warner Bros., Amazon and Microsoft as companies that have applications.

On an application search (applications are widgets you add to your profile), I found Forbes, slide.com, buycostumes.com, Bravo TV, Yahoo, Columbia Records.

A lot of it seems to be other social-media-related entities, like iLike, going.com, last fm, etc.

Summer said...

I would like to see someone set up their own social networking site that allows breastfeeding photos. Surely there's room online for facebook/myspace competition. And perhaps that would make them take notice a little more.

Anyone want to crateit, I'm in!

YiQi C. said...

I found this entry from a post at centuryfille.blogspot.com.

While I would prefer not to witness an infant's feeding time, I actually practice the "look the other way or up at the sky" approach.

As many people have pointed out, it's nearly impossible for an entire breast to be visible in a feeding picture (I don't think a high angle shot would even do it), and such an image is not sexually suggestive.

Unfortunately, some folks might think that seeing any part of the human body that would otherwise be covered with undershirts or undershorts is inextricably tied to explicit sexuality.

Individuals who put up controversial or "fishy" pictures that might offend some but not others should at least be given the option to set the picture to private or be viewable only by friends.

If, on the other hand, a breastfeeding picture consisted of a child who is "too old" to be breastfeeding, what would the response be?

Glenn said...

Hey, here's a thought that doesn't seem much explored. Facebook is a private, commercial entity that is concerned primarily with its economic viability. If they want to yank something from their site (which is providing you with a free service), why shouldn't they? Nobody's saying you have to use facebook for anything, nor are we saying that you can't withdraw your support from facebook. I think we all know that our society has strange double standards, but that's life, it's unfair and it sucks. Facebook has essentially no explaining to do as some seem to be arguing here, rather they are defining (through action) the terms of their policy, which is phrased in a manner which allows them to do so.

I'm a true believer in freedom of speech and expression, and I actually would argue to everyone here that if you want to make the claim that breast-feeding pictures aren't offensive or pornographic, you shouldn't frame the argument by saying "look at these pro-ana groups that they should get rid of." Obviously, there are individuals who will find this material objectionable, a stronger argument (to me) is simply that facebook should encourage its users to be responsible for themselves and for the content of their pictures, groups, profiles, etc... Argue not for your cause, but for a change in the general conditions which will allow for more freedom in the exchange of information.

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