One of the primary storylines of the Arab Spring has been the role played by social networking sites in helping anti-government protesters organize and convey their messages and experiences to the wider world. We hear less about activists condemning these social networking sites, but that's exactly what happened on Monday when Egyptian journalist and labor activist Hossam el-Hamalawy (pictured above next to graffiti celebrating the Egyptian revolution) accused Flickr of censoring his Piggipedia account in an appearance on Al Jazeera's The Stream.
What, you ask, is Piggipedia? The idea came to el-Hamalawy back in 2008, nearly three years before the Egyptian uprising. He'd create an account on the photo service Flickr, call it Piggipedia, and ask his readers to take photos of President Hosni Mubarak's security forces when they cracked down on protesters, upload those pictures to the account, and identify the officials and their abuses in captions. Building on the work of other Egyptian bloggers who'd been profiling police officers since 2004, the account would essentially become a public encyclopedia of "Mubarak's Interior Ministry pigs," as el-Hamalawy put it. A "police officer cannot show up for a demonstration, beat the hell of out of peaceful protestors, then walk home and go out in his neighborhood with his family to have fun," he wrote at the time. "They have to be exposed in front of their children, parents, neighbors and peers. Their pictures have to be everywhere, from the internet to the streets."
The project entered a new phase when el-Hamalawy and other protesters broke into state security headquarters in Cairo in early March, in the wake of Mubarak's resignation.The protesters discovered two DVDs with the names and profile pictures of state security officers--information that el-Hamalawy promptly uploaded to Piggipedia. This video, via Al Jazeera, shows the break-in:
Here's where Flickr enters the story. The site swiftly sent el-Hamalawy a notice that it had removed his photos of state security officers--but not some of the other Piggipedia pictures--because of copyright infringement. Here's a copy of the notice, from el-Hamalawy's blog:
El-Hamalawy deemed Flickr's actions censorship and re-posted the photos to the file-sharing service Ge.tt. In response to a TechCrunch post, Flickr explained that the "images in question were removed because they were not that member's work." Flickr said that El-Hamalawy "must understand that this is not a decision we ever take lightly but only as necessary to ensure that Flickr remains a great place to creatively post and share original photos and videos." TechCrunch's Alexia Tsotsis was sympathetic to Flickr's explanation, noting that "the photos in question were not taken by [el-Hamalawy]. We could go on all night like this but the main point is Flickr has (a valid) excuse." But others, like Thomas Hawk, disagreed:
Personally I think that this is one giant cop out on Flickr's part. Flickr knows that Flickr is *full* of photos that are 'not a member's work.' In fact Flickr staff themselves routinely upload photos to their own personal photostreams that are 'not their work' ...
The photos were pulled because Flickr was pressured to pull the photos and chose to respond to that pressure rather than to take a stand for freedom ... Certainly there might be times that Flickr ought to consider enforcing a policy of a user 'not uploading their own work.' Blatant copyright infringement. An account by someone simply hosting eBay graphics. Etc. But using this technicality to remove politically sensitive and important public domain images from a Flickr user's photostream is not one of them.
The debate soon petered out, without Flickr catching too much flak. But el-Hamalawy resuscitated the controversy in an interview with Al Jazeera on Monday. "I was hoping, actually, that Flickr would be the ideal platform for" Piggipedia, he told the network, but Flickr "censored our photos" by taking them down. "I don't know whose copyright they're talking about," he added. Here's the interview: