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French Court Will Preside Over Case Involving Facebook and a Famed Vagina

A French Facebook user is suing the company for suspending his account after he inadvertently posted one of the world’s most famous paintings of a vulva.

by Pierre Longeray
Mar 6 2015, 11:47pm

Photo by Etienne Rouillon/VICE News France

A Paris court ruled this week that it has jurisdiction to try social media giant Facebook, in a case involving the world's most famous painting of a vulva.

French teacher Frédéric Durand-Baïssas filed a complaint against Facebook in 2011 after his account was blocked when he posted an image of a woman's vagina.

The vagina in question is the one featured in 19th century French artist Gustave Courbet's Origin of the World, an oil painting that currently hangs in Paris' Orsay museum, one of the world's most prestigious art institutions.

Durand-Baïssas claims the company interfered with his right to free speech when it censored his post and suspended his account because it could not distinguish between Courbet's painted vagina and the real thing. He is seeking 20,000 euros ($21,600) in damages, according to French daily Le Figaro.

Earlier in January, Facebook lawyers argued that French courts had no jurisdiction to rule in the case because Durand-Baïssas had agreed to the company's general terms of use, which stipulate that only a US-based court can preside in disputes involving the California-based company.

But on Thursday, Paris' high court said the policy was "abusive" and decided the case could be tried in France in a ruling that some say could create a legal precedent for future cases involving the social media giant and others in Silicon Valley.

Speaking to VICE News on Friday, Durand-Baïssas said he was "thrilled and reassured by the court's decision."

Related: French Interior Minister Brings Counterterrorism Agenda To Silicon Valley

Durand-Baïssas, who describes himself as an art lover and lists photography as one of his hobbies on Facebook, said that the controversy began when he shared a link to a documentary on Courbet that had been broadcast on Franco-German television channel Arte.

"The thumbnail for the video was an image of The Origin Of The World," said the teacher, "so when I posted the video to my wall, the picture automatically appeared in the thumbnail box."

"I was absolutely not trying to provoke or tease Facebook," he added. "I just wanted to post a link to the Courbet documentary, which was excellent."

Facebook enforces a strict policy against content it deems pornographic, and the site's "Community Standards" dictate that the social media giant will "impose limitations on the display of nudity."

"What bothered me about Facebook suspending my account without any warning was the implication that I was a pornocrat," the teacher told VICE News, adding he used the social network mainly to post photos.

"In the beginning, the aim was to regain access to my account, but the US-based company refused to answer my reactivation requests," he said.

Following Facebook's silence, Durand-Baïssas decided to file a legal complaint in 2011. "It was also an opportunity for me to defend French art, our cultural exception, and to combat American prudishness," he explained.

A legal precedent?
While some legal experts, including an attorney who represents Durand-Baïssas, say the ruling could set a precedent for other social networks headquartered abroad, Paris attorney Thierry Vallat told VICE News, "In reality, this is not a first."

"In 2012, the appeals court in Pau issued a similar ruling when a user asked [Facebook] for compensation after his account was blocked," Vallat said. In that case, the appeals court found that Facebook's insistence that all litigation take place in the US was also "abusive," he said.

Vallat believes the court's ruling could force Facebook to "be more careful with its account-closing policy, and may force them to be more responsive to reports of abusive content." Organizations whose mission is to combat racism and anti-Semitism, "will find it easier to bring Facebook before a court to request the definitive de-activation of accounts that glorify terrorism, for example," he said.

The most recent ruling comes just two weeks after French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve traveled to Silicon Valley to meet with representatives from Tech companies Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft to lay the foundations for potential future collaboration in fighting online terrorist propaganda.

The French government has pledged to work closely with Internet companies to combat online terrorist recruitment in particular, following the deadly Paris terror attacks earlier this year.

Related: France will spend $490 million on new anti-terror measures after the Paris attacks.

The Origin of the Controversy
The painting at the center of the legal case has itself seen its fair share of scandal. Although Courbet painted The Origin of the World in 1866, Art historian Thierry Savatier told VICE News that controversy surrounding the painting only started in the 90s, when the picture was first acquired by a museum, after years of passing through private collections, away from the public eye.

In 1993, two years before the painting was included in the Orsay's permanent collection, a new provision was added to the French penal code — article 227-24 — stipulating that, "it is a criminal offense to transport, distribute or manufacture any message that is pornographic in nature" in content that could be seen by minors. Since the law remains somewhat vague about what constitutes pornography, Courbet's painting is an easy target.

A year later in 1994, a complaint was lodged against Adorations Perpétuelles, a novel by Jacques Henric, which featured a reproduction of The Origin of the World on its cover. At the time, "police officers raided bookstores to remove copies of the book," Savatier said.

In 1988, the controversial painting was shown in Brooklyn without making waves. But in 2007, The Origin of the World was "somewhat hidden" among other paintings, when the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a Courbet retrospective, according to Savatier.

With the most recent scandal, "We are going back to a form of conservatism we hadn't seen since the 80s," Savatier said, adding that with the painting, Courbet had sought to "break the taboo surrounding the representation of female genitalia" in Western art.

Conversely, the same Facebook Community Standards that ban nudity also claim that Facebook aspires "to respect people's right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo's David or family photos of a child breastfeeding."

The social media company has censored the painting before on at least one occasion in 2012, when it suspended the Facebook account of Swiss daily La Tribune de Genève after the newspaper chose the image to illustrate an article on gynecology.

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray