Semi-nude paintings by Austrian artist Egon Schiele surprised recent riders of the New York subway, London Tube, and Cologne bus. The works were part of an ad campaign launched by the Vienna Tourism Board. Originally, they were supposed to stand on their own as advertisements for the Leopold Museum. City regulators protested this request to depict nudity in their public spaces, which prompted a change from the Board: the addition of a strategic banner reading, “SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today.” Facebook also refused to run the original images. Justice Anthony Kennedy dubbed Facebook the modern public square, an arena where citizens around the world can share and access information, buy and sell goods, and gather to discuss current events. Unlike the physical town square, Facebook does not have roots in civic organization. A private corporation, Facebook has no obligations or accountability to the public, only to business imperatives and shareholders. And yet, it has many of the powers typically ascribed to a government, due to its prominence in everyday life and ability to decide who sees what and when. Returning to a time before Facebook and a handful of other tech companies have quasi-governmental authority is impossible. The only alternative is to challenge censorship of free expression on the platform itself by pointing out omissions and opening up a dialogue.
Perhaps the most famous example of art censorship in the western canon was the Roman Catholic Church’s hiring of Daniele da Volterra to paint fig leaves and loincloths over nude figures in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. At the time, the church was more than just a religious organization and moral guardian. It played a daily role in everyday life for much of Western Europe. Church buildings served not only as places of worship, but as spaces for civic gatherings like town meetings, markets, and festivals. Education, medicine, and a form of tax collection (tithes) all fell under its purview, as did the ability to provide—or deny—support for rulers. As such, the church took on the role of a semi-governmental body with responsibilities to the people: to provide assistance and maintain civic spaces. In exchange for these responsibilities, citizens implicitly granted the church the ability to censor some forms of expression in order to uphold social norms and mores.
As societies evolve and shift over time, so do norms surrounding the role of the town square and the boundaries around censorship. Currently, the Russian government is locked in a battle with feminist punk band Pussy Riot over public demonstrations. The Islamic State is waging a war of religious censorship, destroying artifacts they consider to be idolatrous. A queer artist’s exhibit was shut down in Brazil following vocal protests from a far-right group. The question of whether any or all of these expressions should have been censored is part of the ongoing struggle to define and defend artistic freedom. In each case a state or state-like authority is exercising their responsibility to protect their citizens and maintain law and order, and in a free and democratic society there would be mechanisms to hold the state accountable for failures. Facebook has already become one of the de facto censors of our time, despite not being a governmental entity. The corporation’s network of human censors and algorithms have removed important cultural and historical artifacts like the 30,000 year old nude Venus of Willendorf, Copenhagen’s little mermaid statue, the “napalm girl” photograph, Rubens, and, of course, Schiele. The decision to censor these and other works moves Facebook to the center of the ongoing debate over who has the right to approve content and control public spaces.
As a private company, Facebook has the right to control their platform however they see fit. Users are under no obligation to continue to use the service if they do not like the policies. As Justice Kennedy has argued, Facebook is more than a private company. It is a modern town square. It is the digital version of the public squares around church steeples in mediaeval Europe. They share significant similarities: Facebook is a source of news, a marketplace, a political rallying ground, and a space where community members can plan events and share information. For the roughly 1.5 billion people that use the platform every day, Facebook is as indispensable as was the church meeting place. Unlike the historic town square, Facebook does not have any civic responsibilities to the public. We now need to negotiate the rights and privileges Facebook has as a digital town square. Raising awareness of attempts to censor controversial artworks is a crucial part of this process. Without pushback against censorship or leveraging technology to bury particular content there can be no debate around the role Facebook plays or its responsibilities to users. Without this debate, we could end up in a scenario where Facebook and others have the ability to erase ideas from the cultural narrative for reasons that benefit the company’s bottom line. The stakes are high: social media platforms are interwoven into everyday life across the globe and have unparalleled access to user data. They maintain distinct walled gardens that hide their inner workings from the public. The digital town square is at the heart of civil society and has the power to shape what we see with little responsibility, unless we continue to highlight overreach and insist those in control be held accountable.