Write to the Point: Where is the line with online censorship?


September 20, 2012


Staff Reporter

Last Tuesday, escalating protests were sparked by an American-produced anti-Muslim video in Libya and Yemen. Then, later in the week, Google-owned YouTube made the unusual choice to block the video that sparked the protests, but only in those two countries.

The action of blocking videos is not unusual by itself. Google has a policy guiding the practice: remove content that it considers to be hate speech, that violates its terms of service, or that the court or government ordered be taken down. However, Google said that it does not consider the video denigrating Islam and the Prophet Muhammad to be hate speech.

“This video — which is widely available on the Web — is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube,” read a statement from Google. Yet, the company chose to block the video in Libya and Yemen due to the violence and the threat of it spreading, which it already has to other countries.

The video, which reportedly is filled with insults against the Prophet Muhammad, is widely believed to be the spark that ignited the violent protest, leaving an American ambassador and three other diplomatic personnel dead. Late last week, reports of protesters being killed were rolling in. The violence was escalating and spreading to other countries, including Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

It seemed the damage done by the video was not quelled by Google's move. Indeed, the protesters could not un-see the video. The video is despicable, and yet a violent reaction is unjustifiable. And while this whole episode raises countless questions about diplomacy in the Middle East, I would like to address instead an issue a bit closer to home.

I must question Google's action in blocking a video they admit does not violate their policy for blocking content. While their intentions may have been good, the repercussions could be dangerous to free speech on the Internet.

As one commenter put it, the move is essentially a “heckler's veto.” The protests and threat of more protests were enough for Google to block the video in those countries. So what's next? Will Google block the video in every country where protests have erupted? This move has put the information giant on a slippery slope. Where does it end? Will Google start micromanaging the content on YouTube or in search results to hedge against protests and violence?

Maybe it's just me, but this move by Google brings to light just how much power over the Internet this one company has. That kind of power is difficult to wield well, and decisions like the one made last week make me think about what else Google could block for some nation or group's “own good.” It's a scary thought.

Perhaps this move, in which Google made a play in international relations without the word from the government, is an isolated incident. Maybe there's not a giant can of worms wriggling free as we speak.

On the other hand, maybe this is the start of a trend. Internet giants: it might be free speech, but we decide if you get to say it.


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