That sox: Samsung got into water for using David Ortiz of Boston Red Sox's selfie with the Prez. Photo: Getty
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Who actually owns your selfies?

Barack Obama is the president of the United States of America and neither he (nor his image) is supposed to be used to endorse a product.

Samsung’s PR team loves it when celebrities take selfies using the company’s newest smartphones. So when the Boston Red Sox visited the White House on 1 April and the player David Ortiz snapped a cheeky selfie with Barack Obama, Samsung’s US team quickly retweeted the picture. Now that decision could land Samsung with a lawsuit.

Why? Because Barack Obama is the president of the United States of America and neither he (nor his image) is supposed to be used to endorse a product. The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, denied that there was any discussion of a ban on all selfies with the president. But US law gives everyone the right to object to being featured in an advertising campaign without permission.

The problem is that these laws were drawn up at a time when the line between personal photographs and adverts was relatively clear and defined. The federal Lanham Act of 1946 gives consumers a way to sue companies for false advertising, or to protest against unwittingly being used in an advertising campaign. The White House lawyers could argue that Obama wasn’t knowingly endorsing a Samsung phone when he posed for the selfie.

Ortiz says that he didn’t intend for his snap to become a viral marketing campaign, but when the Samsung PR team hit “Retweet” it may also have created grounds for a case against the Korean company.

Samsung could defend itself by pointing out that the selfie doesn’t qualify as an advert – you can’t see the brand of the phone taking the picture, after all – and that in posing for a selfie, you give your consent for your image to be shared in all kinds of unexpected ways. We just don’t have any legal precedents for such a case.

The “Ellen selfie” taken at the 2014 Oscars – that one of actors from the Academy Awards in March – was the nadir of the media’s obsession with a pretty unremarkable fad, but the most interesting aspect of the picture was the one that was most ignored: who owned it? You’d think that Ellen DeGeneres owned it, as it was taken with her phone, but Bradley Cooper pressed the shutter button.

It’s a well-established precedent that it’s the person who takes the picture who owns the rights to it but it was DeGeneres who gave Associated Press permission to republish the shot. She may not have had the right to do so.

Alternatively, perhaps she did have the right, in the way that an artist retains authorship rights over a piece of art even if most of the manual labour that went into making it came from a studio assistant. Such arrangements usually need paperwork to be legally formalised, however.

In this case, Samsung also complicated matters, as it has a big advertising deal with the Academy. A representative for Samsung responded after the selfie went viral to deny that DeGeneres was paid to use a Samsung Galaxy Note to take the picture – although the company was “delighted to see Ellen organically incorporate the device into the selfie moment that had everyone talking” – as if those were words a human being would ever utter.

Again, as in so many issues to do with Twitter, from death threats to online plagiarism, the legal system finds itself one step behind in the internet age. But if this episode leads
to the end of news stories about selfies, would that be such a bad thing?

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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“Stinking Googles should be killed”: why 4chan is using a search engine as a racist slur

Users of the anonymous forum are targeting Google after the company introduced a programme for censoring abusive language.

Contains examples of racist language and memes.

“You were born a Google, and you are going to die a Google.”

Despite the lack of obscenity and profanity in this sentence, you have probably realised it was intended to be offensive. It is just one of hundreds of similar messages posted by the users of 4chan’s Pol board – an anonymous forum where people go to be politically incorrect. But they haven’t suddenly seen the error of their ways about using the n-word to demean their fellow human beings – instead they are trying to make the word “Google” itself become a racist slur.

In an undertaking known as “Operation Google”, some 4chan users are resisting Google’s latest artificial intelligence program, Conversation AI, by swapping smears for the names of Google products. Conversation AI aims to spot and flag offensive language online, with the eventual possibility that it could automatically delete abusive comments. The famously outspoken forum 4chan, and the similar website 8chan, didn’t like this, and began their campaign which sees them refer to “Jews” as “Skypes”, Muslims as “Skittles”, and black people as “Googles”.

If it weren’t for the utterly abhorrent racism – which includes users conflating Google’s chat tool “Hangouts” with pictures of lynched African-Americans – it would be a genius idea. The group aims to force Google to censor its own name, making its AI redundant. Yet some have acknowledged this might not ultimately work – as the AI will be able to use contextual clues to filter out when “Google” is used positively or pejoratively – and their ultimate aim is now simply to make “Google” a racist slur as revenge.


Posters from 4chan

“If you're posting anything on social media, just casually replace n****rs/blacks with googles. Act as if it's already a thing,” wrote one anonymous user. “Ignore the company, just focus on the word. Casually is the important word here – don't force it. In a month or two, Google will find themselves running a company which is effectively called ‘n****r’. And their entire brand is built on that name, so they can't just change it.”

There is no doubt that Conversation AI is questionable to anyone who values free speech. Although most people desire a nicer internet, it is hard to agree that this should be achieved by blocking out large swathes of people, and putting the power to do so in the hands of one company. Additionally, algorithms can’t yet accurately detect sarcasm and humour, so false-positives are highly likely when a bot tries to identify whether something is offensive. Indeed, Wired journalist Andy Greenberg tested Conversation AI out and discovered it gave “I shit you not” 98 out of 100 on its personal attack scale.

Yet these 4chan users have made it impossible to agree with their fight against Google by combining it with their racism. Google scores the word “moron” 99 out of 100 on its offensiveness scale. Had protestors decided to replace this – or possibly even more offensive words like “bitch” or “motherfucker” – with “Google”, pretty much everyone would be on board.

Some 4chan users are aware of this – and indeed it is important not to consider the site a unanimous entity. “You're just making yourselves look like idiots and ruining any legitimate effort to actually do this properly,” wrote one user, while some discussed their concerns that “normies” – ie. normal people – would never join in. Other 4chan users are against Operation Google as they see it as self-censorship, or simply just stupid.


Memes from 4chan

But anyone who disregards these efforts as the work of morons (or should that be Bings?) clearly does not understand the power of 4chan. The site brought down Microsoft’s AI Tay in a single day, brought the Unicode swastika (卐) to the top of Google’s trends list in 2008, hacked Sarah Palin’s email account, and leaked a large number of celebrity nudes in 2014. If the Ten Commandments were rewritten for the modern age and Moses took to Mount Sinai to wave two 16GB Tablets in the air, then the number one rule would be short and sweet: Thou shalt not mess with 4chan.

It is unclear yet how Google will respond to the attack, and whether this will ultimately affect the AI. Yet despite what ten years of Disney conditioning taught us as children, the world isn’t split into goodies and baddies. While 4chan’s methods are deplorable, their aim of questioning whether one company should have the power to censor the internet is not.

Google also hit headlines this week for its new “YouTube Heroes” program, a system that sees YouTube users rewarded with points when they flag offensive videos. It’s not hard to see how this kind of crowdsourced censorship is undesirable, particularly again as the chance for things to be incorrectly flagged is huge. A few weeks ago, popular YouTubers also hit back at censorship that saw them lose their advertising money from the site, leading #YouTubeIsOverParty to trend on Twitter. Perhaps ultimately, 4chan didn't need to go on a campaign to damage Google's name. It might already have been doing a good enough job of that itself.

Google has been contacted for comment.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.