At SXSW Interactive, theory and reality converge

I’ve just returned from a hectic week at SXSW Interactive, the annual gathering of digital technologists and creators in Austin, Texas. Conferences like this are often moments of isolation from the rest of the world, where attendees become consumed with the trivia of the event itself. But because many of those attending SXSWi are prolific online journalists, bloggers, and social media users, the conference’s self-obsession doesn’t stay confined to Austin. One tech startup even offered a browser plugin that would hide any Twitter with the “#SXSW” tags to hide the constant chatter from the rest of the world.

For me, it was the real world that kept dramatically spilling into SXSWi. Stories relayed from professional journalists and online writers in Japan, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya dominated much of the conversation. At a panel led by New York Times journalists Jennifer Preston and Brian Stetler, a cluster of us in the audience, including PBS’s Andy Carvin and Al-Jazeera English’s Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, discovered via Twitter the first reports of the death of cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber in Libya. We were supposed to be telling others how social media helped spread news from the Middle East earlier the year; instead we found ourselves recipients of information that itself demonstrated social media’s immediacy and importance.

CPJ put together a panel that highlighted the overlap between theory and stark realities in new media. I wanted the session, “Building Human Rights into Your Social Site,” to encourage SXSW’s young start-ups to consider the needs of independent journalists and activists in their software designs. Joining me on the panel was blogger and CPJ board member Rebecca Mackinnon, writer and activist Jillian C. York, and Ebele Okobi-Harris, head of Yahoo’s business and human rights program.

We all had war stories illustrating how apparently straightforward policy and technical decisions by Internet companies had led, when scaled and spread globally, to damaging consequences for journalists and activists in dangerous regimes. From Yahoo’s own tragic missteps in the 2005 Shi Tao arrest in China, to the latest Facebook account and group deletions, these stories might help young companies avoid making new mistakes.

You can see the wide set of scenarios and approaches we covered from Ogilvy’s illustrated set of notes taken at the time, as well as the panelists’ own set of notes and links.

At another SXSW event, Internet community pioneer Gilles Frydman mentioned that Egyptian journalist and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy had a photo set on Yahoo’s Flickr hosting service deleted for violating the sites’ terms of service. The photographs depicted photos of supposed agents of Egypt’s feared state security agency.

I called Yahoo’s Okobi-Harris about the case immediately after I’d heard Frydman’s description, and asked what terms of service had been violated. In the only e-mail he’d received from Flickr’s administrators, el-Hamalawy had been told that the deletion was for “copyright infringement.” It seemed unlikely to me that Egyptian secret police were pursuing an intellectual property case.

Okobi-Harris had not initially heard of the el-Hamalawy takedown, but later ascertained that Flickr administrators brought down the photos after user complaints and in accordance with Flickr’s community guideline that say users should not “upload anything that isn’t [theirs].” This rule, says Okobi-Harris, is not just to enforce copyright; it’s also an attempt to codify Flickr’s desire that it be used for one’s own photos and videos, rather than as simply a hosting site.

But as Carvin, and photographer Thomas Hawk noted, the policy is not consistently enforced across the service. Flickr–like Facebook, YouTube and almost any service that relies on more than algorithms to accept and reject content–can’t oversee all uploads. It needs its users to complain when guidelines are violated. That’s one of the few ways such policing can scale. It also means that controversial topics are disproportionately policed.

Such subtle rules are almost completely unknown among the service’s millions of users. And the vast majority of people using Flickr, including online journalists, won’t necessarily understand the consequences of a violation until the first complaint comes in–and the content is deleted.

El-Hamalawy didn’t lose the pictures (he kept the originals), but he did lose the hours of tagging and organizing he put into the Flickr collection, as well as the links, the community, and tools that he had grown accustomed to use. (The images were later mirrored by other bloggers.)

When Frydman asked Okobi-Harris point-blank whether Flickr is a suitable site for activists, she acknowledged that, given the issues, perhaps it wasn’t. It might not be a good repository for controversial journalism either. One can see how an online journalist collating pictures with the permission of the photographer might run afoul of the rules.

Even if Flickr felt it had to remove these pictures (and Flickr seems adamant on that point), there is no soft-landing for those who unwittingly breach Flickr’s rules. El-Hamalawy says he watched the pictures being deleted before his eyes as he used the service. He was terrified that his account had been hacked, and had to start from scratch to recreate his archive.

The creation of a “holding queue” for data after an account is suspended would be a simple way to allow users a chance to regain material. (And not just the data that a service wants exiled users to have. Facebook has an export function, but chooses not to include e-mail addresses of your Facebook friends in its output, making it useless for maintaining contacts after you’ve left the social network.)

Direct personal engagement in these borderline cases would also help. I’m sure the overwhelming majority of terms-of-service violations that Flickr’s administrators face involve spam, pornography, phishing attempts, and other abuse. But in unclear scenarios like that of el-Hamalawy, the company should attempt to engage with the user before proceeding with a set deletion.

By far the most important lesson that Internet companies have learned in the last decade is that no matter how many millions of users you have, it pays to have some expert human rights oversight when dealing with the few borderline cases of contentious or newsworthy speech. YouTube does it for the thousands of hours of video it receives every day. Yahoo now does it for many of their properties operating in at-risk regions.

Flickr could have passed the case up to Yahoo’s human rights department lawyers and, in a more private negotiation, some compromise might have been reached. As it was, Flickr could lose good will among users in Egypt, while spreading ambiguity over how journalists may use it as a repository in the future.