The Problem With Using "Free" Online Services: Random Censorship

Laura used Picasa to share photographs of her mastectomy with members of her support group, as well as family and friends. Now they’re gone, deleted without warning because some anonymous jackass flagged them as inappropriate. [Update: Pics are back up! Google apologized and reinstated the entire album, along with comments.] The first problem with this is that it’s hard to figure out which category of “inappropriate” surgical pictures fall under: obscenity, pornography, promotions of hate, incitement of violence, spam, malicious code, or viruses?

[Here’s the rest of the original post.] The second problem is that, instead of temporarily locking her pics away from public view or otherwise disabling them, Google removed them entirely from its servers, including all the comments and corresponding sense of community that had been built up around them. This is why you should never trust a corporation to be the primary steward of your personal info, and why we distrust services like Google Docs for anything more than temporary uses.

Here’s what Laura received from Google after the photos were deleted:

Please be advised that we have recently received reports that inappropriate content has been posted to your Picasa Web Albums account. One or more photos displayed in your gallery violates our Program Policies and has been removed.

Our Policies state that images displayed on cannot contain obscenity, pornography, promotions of hate, incitement of violence, or spam, malicious code, or viruses. Please note that if you continue to violate these Program Policies, we may suspend your Picasa Web Albums account.

Laura writes, “They didn’t even give me a notice so I could save them or take them down myself. They’re just gone.”

I looked at their policy & the only thing I can think of that they must think I violated was nudity. Not even all of my pictures showed the chest area; some of them were just closeups of incisions, drains, and stuff. But they zapped the whole album. There aren’t even any nipples in my pictures!!!

And I even had a warning on the click-through to the album saying these are post-surgery pictures, they may be disturbing, etc.

Amazingly, I was able to find plenty of pictures of ‘normal’ breasts on Picasa, some that show nipples, some where the nipple is barely concealed by a hand or clothes or something.

Some friends suggested Picasa might still have backups of my captions and comments. I have sent a letter asking for my stuff back, and I posted this info to my breast cancer support community in case they want to remove or backup their own albums.

My husband called Google’s main telephone number and got an operator who would only give him the email address of the Google legal department. He would not give us even the name of anyone who works in the legal department, any contact info for the public relations department, or indeed, even his own name. Just that he was a “general operator.” I don’t understand the secrecy. Isn’t this a publicly-traded company?

(Thanks to Laura!)
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Buran says:

    EECB time?

  2. savdavid says:

    Some Christian freak who wants to stop the spread of knowledge and pictures she/he decides is unGodly.

  3. ribex says:

    To Laura I would say:
    Please don’t assume that any warnings or other explanatory text will follow your photos.

    I recently discovered that I can search Picasa photos using my TiVo. I really didn’t have anything I wanted to look for, but wanted to see what kind of results would come up, so naturally I searched first for “cats”, and then for “breasts”. I saw cats of all persuasions, and then in the second search I saw at least several photos containing completely unclothed breasts. (Soft core pr0n-ish images.)

    However, since the number of “breasts” images was not significantly greater than the “cats”, this lead me to think that the image pool was probably censored.

    Since there are other ways to access Picasa images like this one, this might be a reason why they had a zero-tolerance policy?

    (I am not in any way defending any censorship which may be happening, just relaying my experience. It totally sucks that her images got deleted and I hope she can recover them.)

  4. Blackneto says:

    @savdavid: It’s more likely that it was a random jackass that thought it was gross.
    Or just did it because they could.

  5. DallasDMD says:

    So Google doesn’t review the images before they remove them? Pathetic.

    If they want to be arsewholes about this, then just take your pictures somewhere else and encourage everyone to do the same. I never heard of flickr doing this.

  6. tinmanx says:

    Do no evil, huh? I trust google as far as I can throw it, and I hear the buildings at the google campus are pretty big.

  7. KashmirKong says:

    If you think that’s bad you should see YouTube.

    Revoking honors for videos on controversal topics, deleting comments, permabanning people for 1 copyright violation when they state in their TOS that it takes 3 copyright violated to be permabanned.

    It’s insane how bad things have gotten on YouTube since Google bought the website.

  8. ct03 says:

    @DallasDMD: So Google doesn’t review the images before they remove them? Pathetic.

    This reminds me a lot of craigslist, and the problems that occur when you allow community censorship that isn’t reviewed. I guess they decided that from a cost/efficiency standpoint, it’s a bad idea to have moderators, but this can lead to serious abuse. When I was looking for a summer sublease in DC, I realized that there was nothing to stop users from flagging the most attractive listings so they wouldn’t show up to other apartment seekers.

  9. ct03 says:

    Does blockquote screw up text wrapping or something?

  10. ktoth04 says:

    and this is why i moved to smugmug :)

  11. pdxguy says:

    Finding out details regarding any company’s attorneys is usually not too difficult. Mainly for the reason that sooner or later they file cases and also they have to register with the Bar association in the state in which they intend to practice law.

    Google doesn’t make it easy but it’s not impossible either. Some tips on the search:

    – start with Martindale, ([]) it has a lawyer locater. Plug in Google as the company and you’ll get some names.
    – next, go to the California Bar Association Attorney Search website ([]) and plugin the names you just got. Some have email addresses, direct phones, and even fax numbers.
    – you take it from there

  12. lukobe says:

    Fascinating: I’m glad they were able to restore the pictures, and congratulations to Laura for making it through such a terrible time. I used to take methotrexate for psoriatic arthritis at a fraction of cancer-chemotherapy doses and it made me feel awful–I can only imagine how terrible full-bore chemo must be, especially post-surgery, and that’s not even counting having to deal with the loss of both breasts….

    I also just noticed this related story (via Dynamist) of a guy who lost his entire Flickr account to a malevolent phisher. The photos he still has, because he kept a copy of them at home, but “all the people I’ve linked to are gone… Anyone who watched my photos via their contacts has lost me… All the photos that were marked by others are gone. All the groups which I participated in by contributing illustrative images are gone. All the titles, tags, geotags, view counts and comments are gone. All the descriptions and stories and dialog with others in is gone. My document, my story, my part of the community, is gone.” I’m with one of his commenters: “I blog mostly so I have a record of my life, for me and for my kids, but I guess I’d better put it on paper.”

    But surely Yahoo can restore his account, just like Google restored Laura’s?

  13. darkclawsofchaos says:

    subliminal flickr pool ad anyone? (don’t use google, use our sister site flickr pool)

  14. darkclawsofchaos says:

    @darkclawsofchaos: ok maybe they didn’t say flickr pool, but they are definately taking down the competition

  15. bluebuilder says:

    Normal behavior in regards to sending you a legal email address like that. Lawyers in tech companies are overworked, so their load needs to be managed, and also files need to be created by legal assistants. By going through a main legal email address, like they gave you, they get to do a better job at the whole process.

  16. hornrimsylvia says:

    Nipple Equality Now! This is horrible that this lady had to deal with it, and there weren’t even nipples in the pictures. If there were nipples in this pictures, and if this was a man, there would be no problem with these pictures. Hurry up California dwellers, catch up with Europe already.

  17. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    @ct03: Yes, but only if you have text immediately after the closing tag.

  18. savvy999 says:

    This is why you should never trust a corporation to be the primary steward of your personal info, and why we distrust services like Google Docs for anything more than temporary uses.

    Oooooohhhhh snap! Your Lifehacker cousins are going to be pissed when they hear you’re talking trash on Google apps. Gina is so gonna spam your gmail.

  19. celer says:

    So a while ago I started a free personals site (initially because I had a need for it), which is a constant pain in my butt because of this problem.

    So the terms of service on the site are no copyrighted images and no adult content or images. So first problem, I can’t moderate or review the site because I then become liable for the content on it, so instead I am left with the users moderating it themselves. My current method is simply send me an email if something is objectionable, instead of having an easy to use link to report it. My theory is people won’t bother reporting something unless it is clearly in violation, because sending an email requires effort.

    Which mostly works, for adult related content; it doesn’t even touch on the problem with copyrighted images. Try sorting that mess out, User A says User B is using a copyrighted image … what a freaking mess…

    And about once a month someone goes on a crusade to try to identify all the copyrighted work on the site in one long painful email.

    That being said in general the site has affirmed my belief that 90% of the people on the site I wouldn’t want to date anyways because of the sheer amount of stupidity I have to deal with on a regular basis.

    Plus nothing is fun like having a conservative groups who don’t agree with the community the site was built for trying to get the site pulled off the net.

    *sigh* what a mess this interweb thing is :P

  20. IphtashuFitz says:

    As I was reading this it reminded me of a huge gaffe AOL made many years ago. They had some pretty strict filtering on all their message boards, and at one point somebody at AOL decided that the word “breast” was inappropriate so they added it to their filtering system. Well they apparently forgot that they had an entire forum dedicated to survivors of breast cancer. The press eventually picked up on the fact that members of that form had to start referring to themselves as “hooter cancer survivors” so that their posts wouldn’t get deleted by the filtering system. Needless to say, AOL eventually did rescind that stupid decision.

  21. B says:

    If you post the pictures on myspace, will they delete your account?

  22. Bix says:


    That reminds me of how the word “horsemen” would be also be censored by AOL since the last 5 letters were banned word “semen.”

  23. ogman says:

    Calling Google is a waste of time and will generally change your whole attitude about the company. I called them once and they treated me like I was trespassing. I immediately canceled my Google Apps. account and moved everything to my personal web space.

  24. Chairman-Meow says:

    Ahhh Nothing like People with too much time on their hands imposing their warped sense of morals on the rest of us.

    God forbid you should show photos of a mastectomy because we all know that breasts are the work of the devil. /sarcasm

  25. Did they tell you your behavior was “not looked upon favorably”? Some power-tripping punk at Blogger (owned by Google) pulled that on me a few years ago when they suspended my account. Only by contacting every media ombudsman I could find and threatening legal action was I able to get it restored. Their own TOS states that you have exclusive ownership of the content you upload.

    What happened? []

    Not just me: []

    Widespread: []

    Resolution: []

  26. KJones says:

    This sounds exactly like the “net nanny” crap of the late 1990s. Many websites were blocked by censorware programs that would never be deemed objectionable except by extremist mentalities. Unfortunately, most censorware programs were made by extremist mentalities.

    An anti-racist site was blocked for showing pictures of lynchings on a page discussing its history. Sites on breast cancer were blocked for containing the word “breast”. Sites which were critical of censorware were censored. Even some anti-rightwing political sites or sites belonging to non-christian religions were blocked.

  27. LikeYourFace says:

    A friend of mine works for Google in whatever they call the department who sets ‘policy’ concerning Google images. She spends her day reviewing pics that have been flagged as questionable, deciding whether or not they are, then writing up why. (She has the BEST JOB EVER.) It’s hard to simultaneously protect free speech and cover your ass, but that’s what they’re trying to do. Most of google drank the kool-aid and really buy the whole “Don’t be evil” crap. It’s kinda frightening. So don’t trash Google, someone fucked up then fixed it. An actual person has to look not only at your pictures of surgical procedures, but snuff, kiddie porn, furries, bukkake, avante garde art…and sometimes the line isn’t clear.