Controversy Mounts Over Facebook 'Napalm Girl' Censorship

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The June 8, 1972, file photo shows South Vietnamese forces following after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places.
The June 8, 1972, file photo shows South Vietnamese forces following after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places. Credit: Nick Ut/AP Photo
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UPDATE: After this post was published, Facebook said in a statement that it would allow the photo in question to appear on its platform. "Because of its status as an iconic image of historical importance," the company said, "the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal, so we have decided to reinstate the image on Facebook where we are aware it has been removed." ~ ~ ~

Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg joined escalating protests over censorship by Facebook, posting the iconic Vietnam War picture of the "Napalm Girl" to her profile and re-publishing a mock-edited version after it was removed by the social network.

Ms. Solberg's post was the latest in a row over photographer Nick Ut's Pulitzer-prize winning picture of a naked Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running down a road after being injured in a napalm attack on her village in 1972.

The controversy started as Facebook removed the picture from thriller writer Tom Egeland's profile because of its rules on nudity. Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten then joined in and published the picture on its Facebook page, which was also censored. The newspaper on Friday also published an open letter to the social media's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, to protest the action.

"I appreciate the work of Facebook and other media to stop pictures and content showing abuse and violence," Ms. Solberg said in a comment that was posted with the picture. "But Facebook gets it wrong when it censors pictures like these. It contributes to restricting the freedom of speech."

A little more than three hours after Ms. Solberg posted the picture on Friday morning, it was also removed -- by Facebook, according to Ms. Solberg. The prime minister responded by re-posting a blacked-out version of that picture and several other iconic photographs, such as the "Saigon Execution" and that of the unknown protester who stopped Chinese tanks after the Tiananmen Square repression in 1989.

"What Facebook does by removing images of this kind, good as the intentions may be, is to edit our common history," she wrote in a comment accompanying the second set of images. "I hope that Facebook uses this opportunity to review its editing policy, and assumes the responsibility a large company that manages a broad communication platform should take."

Facebook is facing criticism over its regulation of content as it aims to find a universal standard to apply to its 1.7 billion monthly users, and bans on pornography prevent posting art or historic photographs like the one at the heart of the controversy in Norway.

Facebook is seeking to strike a balance between enabling free speech and "maintaining a safe and respectful experience for our global community," it said.

"While we recognize that this photo is iconic, it's difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others," an unidentified Facebook spokesperson said in an e-mailed comment. "Our solutions won't always be perfect, but we will continue to try to improve our policies and the ways in which we apply them."

-- Bloomberg News