Google moderates free speech

Source: SMH/Washington Post

Google lists eight reasons on its YouTube Community Guidelines page for why it might take down a video. Inciting riots is not among them. But after the White House warned on Tuesday that a crude anti-Muslim movie trailer had sparked lethal violence in the Middle East, Google acted.

Days later, controversy over the 14-minute clip from The Innocence of Muslims was still roiling the Islamic world, with access blocked in Egypt, Libya, India, Indonesia and Afghanistan.

Legal experts and civil libertarians said the controversy highlighted how internet companies, most based in the US, have become global arbiters of free speech, weighing complex issues that traditionally are the province of courts, judges and, occasionally, international treaties.

”Notice that Google has more power over this than either the Egyptian or the US government,” said Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor. ”Most free speech today has nothing to do with governments and everything to do with companies.”

In temporarily blocking the video in some countries, legal experts say, Google implicitly invoked the concept of ”clear and present danger”. That is a key exception to the broad first amendment protections in the US, where free speech is more jealously guarded than almost anywhere in the world.

The internet has been a boon to free speech, bringing access to information that governments have long tried to suppress. Google has positioned itself as an ally of such freedoms, as newspapers, book publishers and television stations long have. But because of the immediacy and global reach of internet companies, they face particular challenges in addressing a variety of legal restrictions, cultural sensitivities and, occasionally, national security concerns.

”Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter now play this adjudicatory role on free speech,” said Andrew McLaughlin, a former top policy official at Google who later worked for the Obama White House as deputy chief technology officer.

Upset foreign governments occasionally block YouTube entirely within their borders to stop a video being watched, as Afghanistan has done. Sometimes governments formally ask Google to block a YouTube video. Google said it complies with these legal, written requests.

But for the White House to ask Google to review a video that was causing trouble in a foreign land was an unusual step. Google said it blocked the video in Egypt and Libya because of the ”very sensitive situations there”.

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