Nipples Online: Just Where Do We Draw The Line?

Online censorship

By Lorna Wallace

The freedom to express oneself without censorship or legal penalty is considered a key touchstone of a democratic society. Freedom of speech has also been central to the development of Humanism and Humanists often describe themselves as ‘free thinkers’. But the debate concerning free speech has never been more complex and critical at the present time, given the ever growing popularity of social media sites.

In this digital age everyone with a mobile phone or laptop has a platform from which they can share images and videos, wax lyrical or rant and rave about everything and anything. But what problems does the fundamental concept of freedom of expression pose for our brave new online world?

Free the Nipple

Free the Nipple campaign has attracted high profile supporters

Strictly speaking, and legally, it would seem that having a tweet, comment, or account deleted constitutes a breach of free speech. But the internet doesn’t play by these rules. While it may seem that social media sites are completely open public forums, they are actually run by private companies. When someone creates a Facebook or Twitter account, they agree to the terms of service and any content which violates these terms can be deleted. But it’s complicated.

There have been debates, for example, about why Instagram allows pictures of topless men to circulate but pictures of woman’s nipples are removed. The Free the Nipple campaign is fighting this censorship and even though celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Rihanna have joined the cause to say that it’s sexist, the female nipple remains banned. What can and cannot be posted is completely at the discretion of Instagram and the same is true for all social media sites.

But while some social media sites have been cracking down hard on nudity, the issue of online bullying is still a problem to be tackled. The internet allows anonymity of course and this has led to people being far crueller than they would be in ‘real’ life. But this form of abuse often has the same effect as if shared in person.

The rising popularity of social media has, sadly but perhaps inevitably, resulted in an abundance of hate speech. But at the same time, social media is so intertwined with our everyday activities that it’s often seen as, and indeed becomes, an extension of real life. It’s no wonder that sites like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram have faced pressure to tighten their rules regarding online abuse. This is not done in the name of censorship, but to protect people.

social media censorship

Should social media firms be held accountable for how people use their platforms?

Surely such online activities should be just as tightly regulated as if they were offline? Threats of violence in the digital world can be just as real as threats face to face and in these situations some level of censorship is necessary. Everyone is entitled to freedom of speech in the UK but exceptions exist for threatening or abusive words which are intended to cause harassment or distress.

Should this not also be applied online in some capacity? While many threats made on social media are empty of actual intent, the internet is filled with homophobic, racist, and sexist content that sometimes manifests itself in the shape of real life violence.

While some would argue that the internet should be completely free of censorship, others, including a group of MPs, think that not enough is being done by social media sites to remove offensive content. A recent report by the Commons Home Affairs Committee has found that sexualised images of children, banned jihadi and neo-Nazi recruitment videos, and anti-Semitic content remained online long after it had been reported as offensive.

bundestag censorship

The German Bundestag recently voted to impose fines up to 50m Euros on social media firms

The committee proposed that the government should bring in new laws to force social media companies to contribute to the cost of the police having to deal with the problems resulting from their failure to regulate such content. Similarly, the German government has recently attempted to tackle offensive content online by imposing fines of up to €50m on social networks that fail to delete illegal content in a timely manner.

Currently, UK law only impacts on social media in extreme situations. For example, a few years ago two Twitter users were jailed for sending abusive messages to a feminist campaigner. The barrage of tweets she received ranged from telling her to kill herself to violent threats of rape. The harshest penalty is no longer merely having your posts deleted and your account blocked, but jail time.

Ideally hate speech should be dealt with by social media sites before it gets so extreme that the matters are taken to court. Because of the massive amount of online traffic it can be difficult to identify and manage offensive posts, but many social media sites are hiring more staff to examine this content. In particular, Facebook is hiring 3,000 extra content monitors after live streams of murders and suicides appeared on the site.

New technology is also being developed to further aid this effort. This technology already exists for quickly taking down copyrighted material and you would think it would be easily transferable for detecting offensive material, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Because what counts as offensive? This issue is incredibly complex because the boundaries are so subjective and so internet giants are faced with horribly complex decisions about what should be censored. While I’m sure there is a general consensus that child pornography does not belong on YouTube, issues such as allowing male but not female nipples to be shown is not so black and white.

Great Firewall of China

The Chinese Government have restricted online access in the country

Complicated and controversial though it may be, social media sites need clearer and better regulation. Censorship should not be heavy-handed though as it is through open discussion and debate that we create a kinder, more tolerant, and inclusive society.

Excessively blocking people and shutting out dissenting voices isn’t the answer. An example of this is in China, where incredibly restrictive online censorship laws have created what is referred to as “The Great Firewall of China”. Oppressive state interference has destroyed people’s freedom of speech and their access to information. Clearly the Chinese government have gone too far in one direction but having no regulation at all doesn’t work either.

We need a system in place to prevent such things as dangerous groups from mobilising or paedophilic images from spreading, particularly given the blurred boundaries between our ‘virtual’ and our ‘real’ lives. As a society we have placed the burden of deciding what should be censored on the shoulders of private social media companies. These sites are now global entities but each country, and indeed each person, has vastly different views on what is acceptable.

Technology has given the world a megaphone but the ability to reach a global audience has led to more disagreement than ever about what is acceptable and what is not.

This leaves people like Mark Zuckerberg in an impossible situation. I’m sure that at 19 when he created Facebook he didn’t realise that these horrendously complicated censorship issues would be his responsibility. And should it be his responsibility to make such important decisions for the world? We trust the government and legal system to draw the line on what is morally acceptable offline, but who should draw the line on what is acceptable online? There are no easy answers, but as with all ethical issues, we have to keep asking those questions and striving to answer them.


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