Crave Talk: Is Flickr's German censorship sinister or clumsy?

Yahoo is under fire from Flickr users -- again -- after restricting photos to German users. Is this corporate censorship, or a confused company throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Yahoo is under fire from Flickr users -- again -- after restricting the photos of German users. The current controversy began when Yahoo, reacting to a local law, added Germany to the list of countries in which Flickr automatically filters images for explicit or offensive content. This has led to a positive frenzy of wailing and teeth-gnashing on the Flickr forums. But while many cry this is the thin end of the censorship wedge, it seems to us more like a confused company getting the wrong end of the stick.

Having added support for several languages, Flickr has blocked swathes of content to all German users in response to complex German age-verification laws. Flickr users around the world are up in arms at what is seen as another example of Internet censorship by parent company Yahoo, after a recent shareholder meeting voted against adopting an anti-censorship policy.

The German controversy comes hard on the heels of Flickr's decision earlier this month that one user's inclusion of pin-up-style photos meant their entire account should be classified as unsafe. Meanwhile, the company continues its notorious co-operation with China's policy of censoring the Internet. All of this suggests a picture of sinister corporate totalitarianism, but closer examination suggests this picture is closer to a catalogue of errors and a lack of joined-up thinking.

A continued failure by Flickr staff to say much more than 'er... we're working on it' and assorted flaws in the safe-search filter system have damaged trust in both Flickr's good intentions and in its competence. Those questioning Flickr and Yahoo's intentions believe there is a principle at stake, which is true; however, in the German case, it appears that Yahoo has simply thrown the Internet-community baby out with the fear-of-litigation bathwater. The policy is supposedly designed to comply with German law and echoes restrictions already in place in Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea.

Such hasty and poorly thought-out curbs are little more than attempts to pre-emptively cover Yahoo from legal challenge. This sort of thing will keep happening until Yahoo -- and all the other global players -- figures out a policy that reconciles varied local laws with the globalised nature of the Internet.

Of course, one reason this particular incident is generating so much heat is that it is centred on Germany. It took no time at all before forum posters began comparing Yahoo's actions to the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany, just to give the whole incident an extra frisson.

In some quarters the debate has focused on the offensiveness (or not) of displaying Nazi memorabilia and symbolism, a hot-button issue around the world and a legal minefield in Germany. So a bad decision by Flickr resonates with wider issues of censorship, history and the legal ramifications of the globalised community that is the Internet.

Is Yahoo justified in filtering content? Well, yes (y'know, for the kids). Are they justified in the wholesale restriction of content based solely on where you live? No, especially when the system is so full of holes that no-one trusts it.

So is this an example of corporate totalitarianism? More likely it's just a cock-up, especially as some German posters are now reporting that restrictions have been lifted piecemeal. Despite what some users believe about Yahoo's sinister intent, the whole business seems more like snafu than censorship. -Rich Trenholm