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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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

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