This past week, a video apparently made with the sole purpose of inciting Muslim anger by an American Coptic Christian was shown on Egyptian television, sparking protests outside the US Embassy in Cairo that have been replicated throughout several countries in the region. The response to the video caused several countries, including Afghanistan, to block the video on YouTube, while YouTube itself chose to block access to the video in Egypt and Libya and later India and other countries, though the latter were in response to legal requests.
YouTube's decision to block the video in Egypt and Libya was not the result of a legal order, rather, it may have been in part due to a request from the White House, which has raised concerns amongst free expression advocates, including the ACLU, EFF, and Access, as well as amongst writers such as the Nation‘s Ari Melber and the Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald.
This case is about as complicated as it gets. YouTube's decision, even absent of White House pressure, was a difficult one, but their decision ultimately represents a slippery slope: If they choose to censor in this case, will they do the same in similar cases in the future or does their decision here represent an exceptional circumstance?
Indeed, YouTube does censor other content under the parameters of their Terms of Service (ToS). Nudity is not allowed, nor is the depiction of violence or drug use, though both are allowed in certain contexts (i.e., when deemed to be “documentary” or “educational” in nature). YouTube (and parent company Google) also remove or geo-block content at the behest of a legal request, as they did with this video in India and other countries. But in this case, the video was deemed not to have violated the ToS and was therefore left up in most countries and only blocked in those where violence had occurred (or where there was a legal request). This was, in fact, an unprecedented move on the part of Google.
Also problematic is the fact that, for the first twenty-four hours that the video was blocked in Egypt, Egyptian users were treated to a message stating that the video had been blocked by legal request, which turned out to be false. Google later stated that this was an “error” on their part.
Although it is well within Google's legal right to choose what content is within their Terms of Service, it is problematic for Google to be the arbiter of appropriateness for foreign countries, as I wrote in an op-ed for CNN. And though there have been many calls for censorship around the world, there are also brave individuals and groups standing up for free expression in Egypt, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
Ultimately, Google's decision will have an impact on future decisions not only by that company, but by others as well.