Facebook breastfeeding flap grows

January 2, 2009 8:04:50 AM PST
Web-savvy moms who breast-feed are irate that social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace restrict photos of nursing babies. The disputes reveal how the sites' community policing techniques sometimes struggle to keep up with the booming number and diversity of their members.Facebook began as a site just for college kids, but now it is an online home for 140 million people from all over the world. Among the new faces of Facebook are women like Kelli Roman, 23, who last year posted a photo of herself nursing one of her two children.

One day, she logged on to find the photo missing. When she pressed Facebook for an explanation, she got form e-mails in return.

Facebook bars people from uploading anything "obscene, pornographic or sexually explicit" ? a policy that translates into a ban on pictures depicting certain amounts of exposed flesh.

Roman responded by starting a Facebook group called "Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!"

"There is nothing about bottle-feeding a child that has to be discreet," said Roman, who lives in Fallbrook, Calif., in an interview. "With breast-feeding, it should be the exact same way."

Today the group ? part petition, part message board, part photo-sharing hub ? has more than 97,600 members.

One of them, Stephanie Muir of Ottawa, was new to Facebook when she stumbled across the group last year. Muir, a mother of five, does volunteer work related to public health and breast-feeding and said the issue is important to her.

"I think it's time we all get over this notion that women's breasts are dangerous and harmful for children to see," she said. So she organized a Facebook protest last weekend against the site's policies, which she believes are arbitrarily enforced and discriminate against women.

Muir said more than 11,000 people participated in the group's "virtual nurse-in" by swapping out their regular profile pictures on Facebook and uploading ones depicting breast-feeding.

At Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., 23-year-old mom Heather Farley, who was visiting from her home in Provo, Utah, led a real-world nurse-in to complement the online event. About 10 women showed up to breast-feed their babies outside the front door, drawing attention from local media if not Facebook employees, who were scarce on that Saturday after Christmas.

A member for almost four years, Farley has nearly 400 friends on Facebook, a network she'd be hard-pressed to replicate if she moved to a smaller site with more lenient photo policies. She uses Facebook more than e-mail to stay in touch with far-flung high school and college friends. She especially likes to check out pictures of their babies and share photos of hers. But with a 9-month-old, "it's almost hard to get a picture of me not nursing," she said.

This fall, Farley changed her profile photo to one that showed her breast-feeding. Someone probably objected, because Facebook deleted it. It, like MySpace, generally relies on members to point out when others break the rules.

Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt said the company's guidelines regarding exposed flesh allow most breast-feeding photos. However, Facebook draws the line at a visible nipple or areola, he said. Facebook also nixes pictures showing the gluteal cleft.

Facebook doesn't generally go looking for nudity, but it does respond quickly when someone on the site flags another person's photo as inappropriate. Schnitt said the policies were instituted years ago, when Facebook was much smaller, but they reflect common practices on mainstream Web sites.

"We decided nudity was something we didn't want on the site. It doesn't matter the context. We would agree that there are absolutely many contexts for nudity where it is not obscene," Schnitt said, but emphasized that Facebook can't practically convene a panel to decide on a case-by-case basis.

John Palfrey, a Harvard Law School professor who specializes in Internet issues, called Facebook a victim of its own success.

"As we wrap more and more of our lives into a single environment on the Web, the feeling that civil liberties ought to be protected there continues to grow," Palfrey said.

But it's really just that ? a feeling. Online hangouts might simulate a public place, but they're still private Web sites where the company is king, not the Constitution or the myriad state laws that apply to breast-feeding outside the home.

News Corp.-owned MySpace, which prohibits nudity, also has sparked online protests over photos taken down of breast-feeding mothers. A company spokeswoman did not return messages seeking comment.

One contrast is LiveJournal, a popular blogging network, which made an exception for nursing in its no-nudity policy. The rule came in response to feedback from users and an advisory board comprised of Internet scholars.

While Schnitt said Facebook's policies predate a recent push by law enforcement agencies to better protect children from online predators, the whole field of Web hangouts may be skittish about anything that might expose kids to nudity, said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the free-speech watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Facebook already curtails the activities of some members based on age and the networks they belong to. For example, adults can't look at profiles of kids under the age of 18, even if they're members of the same regional network.

Palfrey suggests a middle ground might emerge, in which networking sites like Facebook can better satisfy diverse constituencies without creating strife. That will require honing the technology to make it more certain that only people within specific networks and groups could see, say, a breast-feeding photo, while keeping children from seeing nudity.

Palfrey describes the goal as making "a site that is good for everyone, or good for the largest number of people, rather than the fewest."

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