Facebook hit 150 million registered users on Jan 7, and the site's founder boasts that if the social network were a country, it would surpass Japan, Russia and Nigeria in population.
But if Facebook Nation really existed, it would be a prudish state of the worst kind.
Censors at the popular site have removed the cover image of the Sep 11, 2008 issue of Xtra, with only a vague explanation: Facebook was trying to "protect" children from viewing the image.
Julia Garro is the associate editor of the Toronto gay and lesbian newspaper. She uploads each issue's cover image to the Friends of Xtra Facebook group.
But this week, she received a message from Facebook, warning her that one image had been deleted from the Friends of Xtra group:
Facebook declined to answer Xtra.ca's repeated attempts for an interview, so we are unable to clarify how the sight of naked breasts might create an "unsafe" environment for youth.
A look into Facebook's Help Center reveals that the company reviews all items flagged by its users.
"Any content that is considered obscene, violent, malicious or otherwise offensive will be removed," says Facebook. "If you received a warning about an item that was taken down, then we have established that it violated these terms."
Clearly, the breasts in question are neither violent nor malicious. One could assume that Facebook decided that the image is obscene or offensive — but under what criteria? Facebook won't say.
But even in cases in which a nude image is clearly not obscene, violent, malicious or offensive, Facebook has taken a hardline approach.
The social-networking site recently came under fire for deleting pictures of women breastfeeding their children. Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt told the New York Times that the company has no plans to change their strict no-nudity policy.
"Certainly we can agree that there is context where nudity is not obscene, but we are reviewing thousands of complaints a day," he says. "Whether it's obscene, art or a natural act — we'd rather just leave it at nudity and draw the line there."
But in these tough economic times and given that Facebook isn't great at generating revenue, here's an idea: lay off the army of censors and save some money.
Censoring the expression of sexuality in the name of "protecting" youth suggests that a child could be harmed by simply viewing an "offensive" image. But exactly what harm could come from viewing that cover of Xtra? What is Facebook so afraid of?
"Think of the children!" is a logical fallacy that appeals to emotions and the falsehood that children are so innocent that they need constant sheltering from reality. It's an argument often used when someone thinks something is "icky" or "immoral," but they're unable to rationalize why it makes them feel that way.
The Xtra cover might cause youth to think about sex in an open way. And that idea would likely scare the pants off any social conservative who thinks sex is something that should be saved for marriage.
Worse yet, there's no transparency in Facebook's decision-making process. Facebook typically refuses to elaborate or engage in discussion after it censors an image.
If Facebook actually were a country, I'd be itching to leave (but not to the Republic of Myspace — I hear they're keen on censorship, as well).
WHAT FACEBOOK DOESN'T WANT YOU TO SEE:
What happened: Several women noticed that photos of themselves breastfeeding their children had been flagged for removal.
Facebook's response: Facebook says it has a strict no-nudity policy. "Whether it's obscene, art or a natural act — we'd rather just leave it at nudity and draw the line there," spokesman Barry Schnitt told the New York Times.
Outcome: Over 150,000 breastfeeding moms and supporters have joined the Hey Facebook! Breastfeeding is not obscene group. Facebook refuses to budge on its prudish policy.
Hot gay guys in designer underwear
What happened: Facebook removed two pages set up by the gay men's retailer Priape. Priape sells a variety of clothing, sex toys and porn. Michael Ain, Priape's director of marketing and sales, says Facebook is treating Priape differently than it does similar pages aimed at heterosexual audiences. He says there were no pornographic or explicit images on Priape's Facebook pages.
Facebook's response: Facebook refused to return Xtra's calls for an explanation. An explanation Facebook emailed to Priape does not provide clear grounds: "The content on the Page you created is prohibited. We do not currently allow content referencing, facilitating or promoting adult toys, videos or other adult products. Unfortunately we cannot reinstate this Page and ask that you do not recreate this page in the future."
Outcome: Despite Facebook's warning, Priape is back at it with a new group, Priapewear.
Anyone with the last name Gay
What happened: In 2007, bloggers were buzzing because Facebook blocked anyone from registering with the lastname "Gay." A message would appear on the screen: "Please enter a legitimate name."
Facebook's response: Apparently, Facebook was trying to stop homophobes from creating "offensive" and "obscene" profiles. But tell that to Duncan Gay, a New Zealand politician.
Outcome: Xtra.ca tried registering an account for Mike Gay and Duncan Gay, but we still had no luck. Facebook displayed the following message: "Our automated system will not approve this name. If you believe this is an error, please contact us."