Editor’s note: Eva Galperin is the International Freedom of Expression Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Follow her on Twitter: @evacide.
On Wednesday, YouTube announced that it had blocked access to a video showing clips from “The Innocence of the Muslims,” an anti-Islamic film that depicts prophet Mohammed as a philanderer who approves of child abuse, after the film sparked violent protests in Libya and Egypt. It was an extremely unusual move for Google-owned YouTube, which normally adheres to Google’s policy of only censoring content if it violates their Terms of Service or in response to a valid court order.
As Google admitted Friday, despite deciding to block the video in the Middle East, the controversial video was still “clearly within [its] guidelines.” While their goal of trying to tamp down violence may have been sincere, the decision was misguided and opens the door for more censorship in the future.
Thanks to its pro-free speech policy, YouTube and other Google products have become vital platforms for free expression all over the world. When a YouTube user uploads her movie, she can expect that so long as it does not violate the Terms of Service or the law, it will stay up. Because Google has chosen not to mediate content, there is room for all kinds of speech on YouTube — for unpopular speech, for voices of dissent, for speaking truth to power, for ugly and disturbing speech, and for cute cat videos. When Google turns its back on those policies, however temporarily, it is up to civil society to take notice and hold them accountable.
Let’s be clear — Google hosts content entirely at its own discretion. Google is not under any legal obligation to host your political opinions, your cat videos, or anything in between. Because Google has control over such an enormous portion of the Web, when it does censor, the decision has far-reaching implications for free expression, and any exceptions to this policy should be viewed with a very critical eye. No one cares if you’re not being evil when it’s easy. What really matters is your commitment to not being evil when it’s hard.
The decision to block “The Innocence of Muslims” in Egypt and Libya may have been influenced by the White House, which reportedly contacted YouTube on Tuesday and asked the company to review the video to ensure that it was compliant with its Terms of Service.
No one at the White House could have reasonably believed that the anti-Muslim video had somehow escaped YouTube’s notice. The White House is not YouTube’s abuse department and shouldn’t be in the business of asking Google to check its corporate terms of service. In the end, YouTube did not give the White House exactly what they asked for, but the phone call may have unduly pushed Google to engage in voluntary censorship. While refusing to completely remove the video, they subsequently blocked it in Egypt, Libya, and several other Middle Eastern countries.
It is true the White House did not expressly request YouTube to remove or block the video; indeed, White House press secretary Jay Carney has said “We cannot and will not squelch freedom of expression in this country.” But the phone call itself constitutes a not-so-subtle form of pressure and brings to mind another incident of unofficial government censorship: when Senator Joe Lieberman put pressure on Amazon and other private companies to cut off WikiLeaks in 2010.
But even discounting inappropriate pressure from the White House, by displaying a willingness to voluntarily censor content when controversy hits, Google makes itself vulnerable to the “heckler’s veto.” In essence, the heckler’s veto allows an adverse reaction to chill protected speech. Once people see that Google will waver in its devotion to free expression when faced with violence, people will begin to use violence, or even the threat of violence, to pressure Google into censoring content they find objectionable.
Furthermore, placing blame for the rioting in Egypt and Libya on the availability of “The Innocence of Muslims” and framing the conflict around the censorship of this video shifts the focus away from the real problem: the perpetrators of the violence. People’s willingness to kill each other over an offensive anti-Muslim video is not a problem that Google can solve with any amount of censorship.
At a time when Google should have stuck by its own policies and commitment to freedom of expression, the company caved—and the potential for far-reaching consequences remains to be seen.