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Facebook now likes nudity—but only in art

Ruling in France over work by Courbet may have influenced change in “community standards”

Facebook’s policy regarding the depiction of nudity on its website, which has been criticised for being too vague, was clarified last month. The company’s latest “community standards” indicate that it now allows “photographs of paintings, sculptures and other art that depicts nude figures” to be posted on its site. But Facebook officials declined to say whether a recent ruling in France concerning Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World, 1866, had prompted the move.

A court in Paris ruled in March that Facebook is accountable to French law, after a teacher sued the website for banning an image he had posted of Courbet’s painting of female genitals. The court has decided that the case comes under its jurisdiction; it is now due to be heard by a civil court in France on 21 May.

Facebook’s lawyers had argued that all users agreed when they joined the site to be bound by courts in California in disputes relating to it. According to our sister paper Le Journal des Arts, the judge called this clause “abusive”, and the teacher’s lawyer noted that if it were enforced, none of France’s 22 million Facebook users would “have recourse to French legal jurisdiction in the event of a dispute”.

Facebook has since issued the new guidelines on nudity; it declined to comment for this article.

Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, and Chris Sonderby, the company’s deputy chief lawyer, wrote in a blog post last month: “What exactly do we mean by nudity, or what do we mean by hate speech? While our policies and standards themselves are not changing, we have heard from people that it would be helpful to provide more clarity and examples.”

In 2011, the Danish artist Frode Steinicke said that Facebook officials had removed an image he had posted of Courbet’s The Origin of the World.

The same year, Facebook blocked the account of the New York Academy of Art after the institution ran a drawing by Steven Assael of a woman’s naked torso. According to the New York Times, officials at Facebook admitted that they had made a mistake with the Assael work, saying that the company had an “unwritten policy” that allowed drawings or sculptures of nudes.