After a rollicking New Year’s Eve kick-off to 2011, Dutch photographer Jan van Breda posted some photographs of the party he attended on Facebook. Photos of scantily-clad men, kissing each other on the lips. One hour later, his account had been removed.
Just fifteen minutes after Jan van Breda had put up the photos under his profile, he received an email from Facebook which read:
“You have uploaded a photo which violates our Users’ Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Therefore this photograph has been removed. Photographs which are deemed offensive for an individual or a group, or where nudity, the use of drugs or violence are clearly visible, are not permitted on Facebook. Our policy has been designed to keep Facebook a safe and protected social network site for all our users, including the many children who are signed up with the site.”
When Mr van Breda went to check his Facebook profile a little later to see which photo specifically had been considered offensive, he discovered - much to his bewilderment - that his whole account had been removed. After a lengthy email correspondence, his profile was re-enabled, on the condition that he delete any photographs with a sexual slant.
“I refused to do that. In the end, it turned out that they removed one photo, the rest were still in my profile.”
The photograph in question was taken during the Pink Christmas gay festival and depicted a fashion show on the Zeedijk, a lively street in Amsterdam’s Chinese district. Two buttocks are visible in the photo – not completely bare but partially covered by ‘chaps’. Full-length chaps are leg coverings attached to the waist by a belt. They’re often worn by horse riders over their jodhpurs to keep their legs dry and warm. In gay circles, chaps are frequently worn without trousers underneath.
“I took this photograph on a public street in Amsterdam, with some twenty or so law enforcement officers looking on. At Facebook, they seem to consider that earth-shattering. From my point of view, they’re pretty innocuous images of dancing gay men. I’ve come across a lot more explicit and shocking material on Facebook.”
A professional photographer, Mr Van Breda won the Silver Camera Award (Zilveren Camera) in 2008 - an annual award for photojournalists in the Netherlands - and gets regular assignments from ANP press agency and the Amsterdam daily newspaper Het Parool. He also photographs gay parties and festivals and posts the images on Facebook, where he gets a considerable response from gay users.
“Facebook is meant to enable people to stay in touch with the world and share everything. But if there’s a photo in your profile which is judged to be unsuitable, your profile is disabled.”
According to Jan-Willem de Bruin of COC Netherlands, a large gay rights organisation, Facebook regularly deletes profiles with ‘offensive gay photos’, but he doesn’t want to accuse the social media site outright of upholding one set of rules for heterosexuals and another for homosexuals.
“I do know that the profile of Viola Volt, an Amsterdam drag queen, was removed at one point because she had posted photos that Facebook didn’t approve of. Her account has since been restored. “
On the website of Gaykrant, a Dutch fortnightly gay magazine, one user, Bart de Graaf from the east of the country, says that his Facebook account was also removed “after posting harmless photos on the Gay Pride page”. Mr de Graaf explains that Facebook took the action after receiving a complaint from another user, who himself posts what Mr de Graaf considers offensive material, including photos depicting Nazi symbols.
“Lodging a complaint doesn’t seem to help the situation; this user keeps coming back. I’ve meanwhile opened a new account, but the hatred goes on relentlessly. I often wonder which side Facebook is on.”
Facebook has refused to comment on the matter so far.