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Facebook removes a picture of a famous Danish mermaid statue (2016)

Summary: For over a century, Edvard Eriksen’s bronze statue of The Little Mermaid becoming human has been installed on a rock along the water in Copenhagen, Denmark. The statue was designed to represent the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, and has become a tourist attraction and landmark.

Image used here under CC BY-SA 3.0 License, taken by Avda-Berlin.

In 2016, Danish politician Mette Gjerskov used Facebook to post a link to her own blog post on the TV2 website, which included an image of the statue. Facebook automatically displayed the image with the link, leading the company to then take down the link. The explanation provided by Facebook was that the image had "too much bare skin or sexual undertones."

Gjerskov highlighted the absurdity of the situation, calling it “ridiculous” that the image caused Facebook’s moderators to block the link. Many people appeared to agree, and as the story began to get more attention, Facebook quickly backtracked and admitted the removal was in error. It restored the link.

Many of the news reports on the story concluded with Facebook’s reversal, but the image actually did not return to Facebook. Due to copyright law in Denmark, the statue is still considered to be covered by copyright (until 2029, 70 years after Eriksen’s death), and his estate has been fairly aggressive in demanding licensing and royalty payments. Because of that, TV2, which hosted Gjerskov’s blog, chose to remove the image that caused the takedown in the first place -- not to appease Facebook’s moderation, but to avoid a copyright issue from the Erikson estate, even though a copyright on the statue itself is different from copyright on images of the statue.

Decisions to be made by Facebook:

  • How do you write rules regarding nudity that take into account art or cultural landmarks?

  • Is taking down a link due to images that are automatically embedded via the OpenGraph feature the best solution? Would it make sense to simply remove that image while leaving the link, or have a different image show?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • The line between artistic works that depict nudity and works that violate a nudity policy or include “sexual overtones” is often a very subjective judgment call. How can companies craft rules that are enforced consistently across a diverse set of moderators, often with different cultural backgrounds and experiences?

  • A strict policy against nudity is likely to capture many artistic situations. Is that a reasonable trade-off for websites that seek to be family friendly?

  • How can copyright intersect with other types of challenges regarding content moderation?

Resolution: As noted in the case study, the link was restored after Facebook admitted error, but the image was taken off the website (and, thus, the link on Facebook) due to copyright concerns from TV2. Facebook’s policies already allow many forms of artistic nudity, but mistaken removals for nudity still feel common, given the huge scale of review decisions made on a daily basis. The statue has continued to be a cultural landmark in Denmark, and is often used for making political statements, leading to more photographs being shared of it. Just recently it was vandalized to promote democracy in Hong Kong and to protest racism.

Written by The Copia Institute, January 2021

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