The protests against the now infamous YouTube video disparaging the Prophet Mohammad have thrust YouTube, and its parent company Google, into a tough situation.
While the company says it values free speech and usually only removes videos that violate its policies, it is experimenting with a deliberately inconsistent approach to the crisis surrounding the video, “Innocence of Muslims.”
Google will continue hosting the video in most of the world, since it does not meet the company’s definition of hate speech. But it is now blocking access to the video in Libya and Egypt, where the video has contributed to violent riots over the past several days, as well as India. (The English-version of the video has been viewed the most in Egypt, Canada and Tunisia, according to YouTube data.) The company released an unusual statement explaining its decision:
“This video—which is widely available on the Web—is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube…. given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt we have temporarily restricted access in both countries.”
Google argues that its geographic relativism is also necessary because what is acceptable “in one country can be offensive elsewhere,” and it expressed sympathy for the people murdered in the attack in Libya.
While few would challenge Google’s motives in this situation, it is easy to see why this is a problematic step for a global publisher. Whether the local pressure is from autocratic governments or violent mobs, the company should not risk the perception that such activity is rewarded with censorship. It’s hard to decide when a video crosses the line from advocacy to hate speech, or from documenting torture to glorifying it—a grisly question raised by videos uploaded from the Syrian crackdown, as The Nation reported at the time—but the answers are binary. Videos found to violate the policy come down. A localized approach is trickier, and it raises the temptation of tamping down controversies by proactively warping free speech in the very places where it is most threatened.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which is the closest thing to an ACLU for the Internet, said that Google’s decision could mark a step towards YouTube “proactively censoring its content” and supplanting its own “moral policing” of speech instead of applying uniform safeguards. Jillian York, who directs the group’s International Freedom of Expression program, said “Google is in the wrong” for censoring the video. Given the reported pressure from the White House and the absence of any local legal order, she told The Nation, restricting the access only “for Egyptians and Libyans” simply “reeks of paternalism.”
Another expert in the field, author Rebecca MacKinnon, questioned whether the move augurs a new trend, or, as she told the Times, reflects “an extremely exceptional response to an extremely exceptional situation.”
Yet there is nothing exceptional, unfortunately, about religious speech drawing violent reactions, whether it occurs online or off. Companies like YouTube will continue to be tested on their commitment to the mission that made them such popular and profitable websites—providing an open platform to a wide range of ideas from around the world.