photo by Chris Alban Hansen
It may be the most famous photo of the Vietnam War: A 9-year-old girl flees naked down a highway with other frightened children after American warplanes dropped napalm on their village in an action targeting Viet Cong guerillas.
Associated Press photographer Nick Ut snapped the Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of Kim Phuc and the other children in 1972. Nearly every daily newspaper in the world ran the photo at the time and in the years that followed. For Americans and our allies, it brought home the suffering of the war and the unanticipated consequences of what we presumed were our good intentions; for our Cold War adversaries, the shot was propaganda manna from the Communist equivalent of heaven.
Yet if that photo were taken today, there is virtually no chance that the AP would carry it, or that many news outlets would run it. (Disclosure: I worked for The AP from 1978 to 1986.) Times and standards change. The phrase “kiddie porn” did not exist in 1972, even though the material it describes certainly did.
Of course Ut’s famous photo is not pornography; it was journalism, and now it is history. Of course there is a vast difference between the deliberate exploitation of children and the accidental victimization of a child. Of course there is no justification for child pornography and ample reason to publish a newsworthy photo of a child’s suffering.
But the law is a blunt instrument. Any photo of a naked child is legally questionable today. A photo taken without the consent of that child and her guardians is on even shakier legal ground. And even if a photo was prizewinning news four decades ago, is it news now, long after the war in question has ended?
Facebook has, or at least until last week had, a clear policy: no nudity. It is one reason why Facebook stands out among the flood of salaciousness and outright porn on the internet. Your child may see things or encounter people on Facebook that you would prefer he or she not (especially if you have not taken care with privacy settings), but your kid won’t encounter nudity, and especially child nudity, because Facebook does not allow it.
Is that censorship or editorial standards? If we say it is censorship, then we have forgotten what the word means. Censorship is an official prohibition on publishing; its absence is not a mandate that anything goes – or that editorial standards must be outsourced.
Perhaps this distinction gets lost in translation to Norwegian.
Facebook picked a fight, seemingly inadvertently, by applying its nudity policy to Ut’s photo, which was included in a post about photographs that changed the history of warfare. The post was written by Norwegian author Tom Egeland who, in protest, reposted the image after Facebook took it down, along with Phuc’s support for the photo’s dissemination. Facebook again removed the picture and banned Egeland from posting for 24 hours.
At this point, the story was reported by the daily paper Aftenposten, which used Ut’s photo in reporting what had happened to Egeland – leading Facebook to ask Aftenposten, in turn, to pixelate the image or take it down. Instead, the publication’s editor-in-chief wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, criticizing not only Facebook’s policy, but its decision to “punish the person who dares to voice criticism.”
The editor, Egil Hansen, closed the letter with the explanation, “I have written this letter to you because I am worried that the world’s most important medium is limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way.”
The dispute escalated as a series of Norwegian politicians posted Ut’s photo on their own Facebook pages in support of Egeland and Aftenposten. The supporters included Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who called on Facebook to review its policy after it deleted her original post. She argued that modern children should have the opportunity to learn from historical images and events, and that Facebook’s decision to remove the photo hindered that aim. According to The Guardian, Solberg’s deleted post stated, “I say no to this form of censorship.”
It is possible, of course, that something is lost in translation. But censorship simply is not an accurate way to describe Facebook’s behavior. Facebook did not prevent Aftenposten from publishing Ut’s photo on its own website, as it is entitled to do if it has permission from the copyright owners. As an illustration of this point, the image appears several times along with Hansen’s open letter.
Nor is Facebook under any obligation to display Aftenposten’s use of that photo on its own site. Given the utter lack of current news value, the photo’s use in this context seems more like click-bait than anything else. After all, it is not a difficult image to find; I did not link to it at the beginning of this post, but if you are unfamiliar with the photo, you can easily find it by searching for Ut, Phuc or even just “napalm.”
If Norway’s prime minister wants to disseminate the photo in the name of education, she is welcome to do so, again assuming permission of the photo’s owners. The Norwegian government has ample resources to teach the country’s children history in whatever way it sees fit. It does not need to conscript Facebook in order to do so.
However, the controversy caused a large enough stir that Facebook decided to back down from its initial stance. On Friday, Facebook announced it would restore the image in question and adjust its content review policies, though at this point the policy itself apparently remains unchanged. The result is ambiguity over what the policy actually means.
Ultimately, it is Facebook’s decision – and Facebook’s responsibility – to decide what content appears on its platform. As this case demonstrates, public opinion can influence that calculation, but the question is not one of censorship, however it is decided.
Freedom to publish does not imply an obligation on the part of some other party to disseminate what you publish. Somehow, that simple statement seems to have been lost in translation before reaching Norway.