Next time you've got mail, you better check it carefully. And not just if you're one of Anthony Weiner's sexting partners.
Could someone with access to your private account consider its contents obscene? Lewd? Too sexually descriptive? And decide to take it down?
The digital taste police are on patrol and armed with your permission.
I once had a friend send me a copy of Playboy when I was living in El Salvador. It was for the articles. No, really. I'd done an interview in that edition. But when some state security bureaucrat opened my mail and found a naked human bunny on the front, it nearly created an international incident. Only a call to a powerful, bloodthirsty colonel I knew got me out of scalding water.
But virtual communications are profoundly different and have shifted around concepts of obscenity, extramarital affairs, community standards and privacy assumptions. Is a Twitter crotch shot the same as a love letter? If enough Facebook users think something is objectionable, does that make it obscene?
Apparently. Let's say your spouse or another socially acceptable intimate friend is sending you dirty pictures or super naughty prose. It doesn't matter if you both like it.
Officially, you're violating the Terms of Service of most of the big social media/email companies and they can reach their technological scoopers in there, check out your private junk and remove it.
They can, but insist they generally don't unless there are complaints from other users.
"Google reserves the right...to pre-screen, review, flag, filter, modify, refuse or remove any or all content..." says the company's TOS. If you're logged into Yahoo's email system, "you acknowledge that Yahoo!...shall have the right...in their sole discretion to pre-screen, refuse, or remove any content..." !!!
Facebook "can remove any content or information you post...if we believe it violates" their TOS -- they call it "Statement of Rights and Responsibilities", which happens to forbid you from posting anything that is "pornographic...or contains nudity" "Any content that is inappropriately sexual," their community standards read, "will be removed. "Twitter is comparatively way hands-off, but their TOS does allow them to "modify", "adapt" or "make changes to your content" to suit requirements of other "networks, devices, services or media."
Don't complain. You agreed to those conditions when you signed up, whether or not you read the small print. On Facebook, you even voted for them.
But if you get too sexy on social media/email when someone irritated might be peeking, you could go down. And I don't mean in any good way.
Spokespeople for several of these companies say that private communications on their systems don't get trolled as a matter of practice, unless users specifically report things as objectionable. So if Weiner's wife had seen the stuff he was sending other women, at least on Facebook, she could have blown the whistle and turned off his spigot.
Most of the institutional attention goes to illegal or reprehensible content like kiddie porn or hate speech. No one except maybe the Man-Boy Love Association should object to that.
Facebook rep and policy expert Barry Schnitt compares their approach on consensual content that may violate their TOS to "someone running a stop sign but there's no cop around to see it. Nothing's going to happen. No one's nosing through people's mail."
A Yahoo spokesperson would say no more than this: "Yahoo! uses a combination of methods to review content and take actions to enforce our TOS."
There are several hundred Facebook scanners looking for bad stuff, according to Dave Willner, who the New York Times called part of the company's "virtual police squad." They scan tens of thousands of photos a day flagged by members. But Willner's not aware of any case in his 3 1/2 years at Facebook where accidental exposure of graphic content led to investigation.
That makes me feel much better. But what happens if less libertarian sensibilities start making those decisions? It's like Patriot Act powers. Abuse happens when abusers are in charge.
So pray no prigs take over Facebook or Yahoo. And make sure on your end no humorless person is snooping through your account.
What about hard core getting caught in the net of algorithmic sweeps? Schnitt says that technology isn't sophisticated enough to "say this is a photo of an exposed...whatever. Right now it's hard to determine if it's someone's foot or you-know-what."
But Facebook and Microsoft just announced some "PhotoDNA" technology which enhances that kind of recognition. Automated sweeps can identify specific words, though so remember: dirty pictures are safer than foul language, for now.
If you want full privacy, stick to the struggling snail mail system. Open someone's letter or package and you're a felon facing hard time and big fines. Unless you're in jail already or living somewhere like Iran.
(Both Willner and Barry said the post office analogy wasn't fair because multiple service employees are able to open suspicious packages that might contain anthrax. I'm not sure that anthrax and naked bodies are the same thing.)
Dirty pictures and words are like air bubbles; they'll always rise to the surface of our culture no matter what the technology. As Mother Jones' Adam Weinstein tweeted: "Weiner's just showing his age. In the future, dirty pic swaps will be on @Tumblr, not on @Facebook."