As anti-American unrest ripples through the Muslim world, Google's decision to block a controversial YouTube video shows how Internet companies have become global arbiters of free speech.
Google lists eight reasons on its “YouTube Community Guidelines” page for why it might take down a video. Inciting riots is not among them. But after the Obama administration warned Tuesday that a crude anti-Muslim movie trailer had sparked lethal violence in the Middle East, Google acted.
Days later, controversy over the 14-minute clip from “Innocence of Muslims” was still roiling the Islamic world, with access blocked in Egypt, Libya, India, Indonesia and Afghanistan, keeping it from easy viewing in countries where more than one-quarter of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims live.
Legal experts and civil libertarians said the controversy highlighted how Internet companies, most based in the United States, have become global arbiters of free speech, weighing complex issues that traditionally are the province of courts, judges and, occasionally, international treaties.
“Notice that Google (which owns YouTube) has more power over this than either the Egyptian or the U.S. government,” said Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor. “Most free speech today has nothing to do with governments and everything to do with companies.”
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In temporarily blocking the video in some countries, legal experts say, Google implicitly invoked the concept of “clear and present danger.” That’s a key exception to the broad First Amendment protections in the United States, where free speech is more jealously guarded than almost anywhere in the world.
Google said Friday that it had determined that the video did not violate its terms of service regarding hate speech, because it was against the Muslim religion, not Muslim people. Rather, it said it temporarily blocked the video in Egypt and Libya of its own volition in response to the delicacy of the situation.
It added that it had blocked access to the video in India and Indonesia because those governments requested it.
The Internet has been a boon to free speech, bringing access to information that governments have long tried to suppress. Recall last spring’s freewheeling Internet chatter over Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident, as he evaded arrest in a country known for its tight control of news sources.
Google has positioned itself as an ally of such freedoms, as newspapers, book publishers and television stations long have. But because of the immediacy and global reach of Internet companies, they face particular challenges in addressing a variety of legal restrictions, cultural sensitivities and, occasionally, national-security concerns.
“Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter now play this adjudicatory role on free speech,” said Andrew McLaughlin, a former top policy official at Google who later worked for the Obama White House as deputy chief technology officer.
Nazi propaganda, for example, can be found on Google.com but not Google.de, the site tailored for use in Germany, where such speech is illegal. In the United States, images of animal cruelty can be found through Google’s search algorithm — a key tool for legitimate researchers — but are blocked on YouTube, which the company owns but strives to give a more PG sensibility, blocking pornography, gratuitous violence and hate speech.
A Facebook spokeswoman, meanwhile, confirmed that Facebook had restricted access to a link to the film in Pakistan, at the request of its government.
Despite Google’s history as a steward of appropriate content, the Obama administration outreach on the movie clip was remarkable, longtime observers of the company say.
Upset foreign governments occasionally block YouTube entirely within their borders to stop a video from being watched, as Afghanistan has done. Sometimes governments formally ask Google to block a YouTube video, which India and Indonesia did.
Google said it complies with legal, written requests by governments to block videos from being viewed in their countries.
But for the Obama administration to ask Google to review a video that was causing trouble in a foreign land was an unusual step, perhaps unprecedented. McLaughlin, the former Google and White House official, could think of no similar request in the past.
Government and Google officials said the company made its own decision after the administration raised the issue of the video Tuesday, the day that U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
Google said it decided to block the video in Egypt and Libya because of the “very sensitive situations there” and not because the administration requested it.
A company official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: “Dealing with controversial content is one of the biggest challenges we face as a company.”
Google does not police videos uploaded to the site because of the sheer volume involved: 72 hours of videos are uploaded each minute. It reviews videos only if users flag them as inappropriate or if it receives a valid court order or government request to remove them for violating the law. That was the case in India and Indonesia, which have laws restricting content that provokes enmity.
The decision to block, even if only temporarily, has drawn an uneasy reaction, with some civil libertarians blasting Google for essentially censoring access for some potential viewers.
For critics, the decision recalled Google’s former compliance with Chinese government restrictions on a wide variety of content, before the company moved its offices and servers to Hong Kong in 2010, beyond the reach of Chinese censorship laws.
The motives of Google and the administration drew suspicion, with some saying that U.S. officials might have sought to send a political message — distancing the United States from the anti-Muslim video — by revealing their efforts to have it blocked. The officials had no legal authority to demand action, legal experts say.
“It’s a little bit of censorship and a little bit of diplomacy in a difficult situation,” said Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties for the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society.
Yet the controversy has highlighted how much of the world’s information is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of powerful companies. Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain said these “corporate gatekeepers” are essential to keeping free speech robust.
He praised efforts to establish guidelines for when content is removed or blocked from some viewers. Yet he said many hard decisions will come when real cases arise.
“Anyone who says this is a no-brainer, I’m dubious about,” Zittrain said. “Because it’s not a no-brainer, and it’s not going to go away.”
Post reporter David Nakamura and Post researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report. Material from The New York Times is included in this report.