When the Obama administration asked YouTube to review an anti-Islamic film trailer last week to see if it violates the company’s standards, some conservatives and civil liberties advocates decried the move as government censorship. In fact, the request — and YouTube’s measured response — was an appropriate attempt to balance freedom of speech with national security, a feat that has gotten harder an increasingly interconnected world.
YouTube decided that the video, which has sparked violent protests, does not rise to the level of “hate speech” and would remain up in most of the world. But the website decided to restrict access in countries where anti-Islamic statements are illegal, such as India and Indonesia, as well as places where the video has caused violent unrest, such as Egypt and Libya.
Free speech advocates will no doubt complain that Google, which owns YouTube, is trampling on free speech and bowing to the will of violent mobs. But Google is a private company subjected to frequent lawsuits for its content overseas. It therefore reserves the right to remove videos at its own discretion — a process that can admittedly seem arbitrary and unfair at times.
Recent examples of videos that have been removed include a parody of climate scientist Michael Mann, a video calling on people to spam the e-mail inbox of the police officer who pepper-sprayed student protesters at the University of California at Davis, and footage of Sudanese women being flogged by police.
To keep YouTube respectable, users are asked to refrain from posting pornography, images designed to shock, and incitements to violence. YouTube even allows users to block their videos from being shown in other parts of the world, because what is acceptable in one country can be considered beyond the pale somewhere else.
YouTube has blocked some videos in Thailand that insult the king — an illegal act there — as well as pro-Hitler videos in Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime. In Turkey, where insulting “Turkishness” is forbidden, the Turkish government banned YouTube until videos lampooning the father of the country were removed. The Chinese government has also periodically blocked YouTube over videos posted by activists there.
A flurry of Muslim nations have blocked YouTube in the wake of the recent anti-Islamic video, which depicts the prophet Muhammad as an idiot and a sexual deviant. Free speech advocates must ask themselves whether their cause is better served by allowing a single offensive video to block the entire site — or by allowing a concession to community values, of a type the company has repeatedly made.
There are times when YouTube ought to stand its ground and refuse to remove a video. Footage that exposes a dictator’s criminal or immoral conduct should remain, regardless of whether that dictator threatens to block the site. YouTube is big enough that a country might not be able to live without it forever. But it is hard to argue that this anti-Islamic video — which seems designed to provoke the violent reaction that it did — deserves more protection than a video attacking a climate scientist.
Google and YouTube are already powerful forces for free speech in shuttered corners of the world. But in many places, those freedoms are still evolving. In the early days of the American colonies, a person would have been punished for speaking out against Jesus, just as they are punished today in the Muslim world for criticizing Muhammad. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, four Quaker missionaries were hanged for proselytizing, and Roger Williams was run out of town for promoting religious liberty.
Even as late as World War I, freedom of speech was a shadow of what we enjoy today. In 1919, the US Supreme Court upheld the conviction of two socialists who passed out pamphlets encouraging soldiers not to fight, prompting Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. to famously declare that the First Amendment doesn’t protect a person who shouts fire in a crowded theater. Freedom of speech is precious precisely because Americans struggled so long for it. Other countries must do the same.