New York: The anti-Islam video is a PR nightmare for YouTube. It has had to juggle vastly different legal and cultural norms as it faces demands for censorship, an especially difficult task for a website that says 72 hours of video are uploaded there every minute.
Google which owns YouTube is taking a lot of flak for having restricted the video in some countries and not others. Google says it is not simply choosing, but requires a valid court order or official government notification to remove illegal content.
But free speech advocates are critical of YouTube’s actions. They say online speech is only as free as Google wants it to be.
“As violent uprisings in response to The Innocence of Muslims prove, Google increasingly holds all the cards when it comes to what flies and what doesn’t online,” wrote digital trends tracker Andrew Couts.
“In today’s hyper-connected world where barriers between countries seem more permeable than ever, Google increasingly plays gatekeeper to what you should and shouldn’t see,” he added.
Preserving online freedom
YouTube championed Internet freedom by rejecting a request from the White House to pull the smutty film worldwide. In fact, it is smiling from ear-to-ear because a California judge ruled on Thursday that the video can remain on YouTube despite a request from US actress Cindy Lee Garcia to have it taken down. Garcia argued that she was duped into taking part in the anti-Islam film and has since received death threats.
Garcia had sought to have the film removed in a suit filed on Wednesday against Google and film producer Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. In her lawsuit, Garcia accused Nakoula of duping her into appearing in a “hateful” film that she had been led to believe was a simple desert adventure movie.
When the White House asked Google to pull the anti-Islam video it politely declined, saying the video was within its guidelines for content.
Throwing it away
Google may have refused to pull the video in the US despite a lawsuit, but it is quickly burying it in other countries. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is critical of some of YouTube’s actions.
“Whereas the later blockages — in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and by the time of publication, perhaps elsewhere — were determined by a local court in each respective country, the decision to block the video in Egypt and Libya was determined solely by a company in the United States with presumably no local expertise,” said Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a blog post.
“Given the freedoms that Egyptians and Libyans risked their lives for during the uprisings of 2011, it is a shame that a Western company would serve as arbiter of what they are and are not capable of viewing online,” added York.
Google said it had stopped the film trailer from being viewed on YouTube in Egypt and Libya “given the very difficult situation” and has restricted it in Indonesia and India over concerns that it violates local laws.
Civil liberty advocacy groups have condemned Google’s decision to censor the film that depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a philanderer and a supporter of child abuse even in a limited capacity.
“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,” wrote Eva Galperin, in a recent op-ed for TechCrunch.
York pointed out that we live in a globalised world, where what someone says in New York matters in Cairo and vice versa, making it easy to suggest an extra layer of caution and sensitivity toward embattled minority groups.
“Nevertheless, such suggestions create a slippery slope toward greater censorship — one day the request might be to avoid insulting a prophet, the next it might be to avoid insulting a dictator,” said York.
YouTube doesn’t always call the shots
The Saudi film ban was introduced after the country’s King Abdullah said the whole YouTube site would otherwise be blocked. He also called for citizens to report any links to the film.
In Sudan where YouTube was slow to block the video, the government did it for them by shutting down YouTube entirely.
YouTube is now preventing access to the anti-Islam film in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, as well as Libya, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Pakistan.