A few years ago, then-Senator Joe Lieberman went on a bizarre anti-free speech crusade against YouTube, arguing that by allowing "terrorists" to post videos to YouTube
, people were watching those videos and magically turning into terrorists. Because YouTube videos are just that
powerful. Given the public shaming, Google actually caved in and started banning "terrorist" videos
. Of course, how do you define a "terrorist" video? The fact is we just don't know, and that's evidenced by the fact that Lieberman's efforts resulted in videos from a Syrian watchdog organization being taken down
as terrorism -- when they were really reporting on the atrocities of that country's government. If anything, you'd think this would be a clear warning about the perils of trying to censor "terrorist" videos. You're going to get it wrong, and often block important and newsworthy videos.
But... instead it appears that this effort is only ramping up, and unfortunately, YouTube seems to be helping. Over in the UK, where the government has been gradually censoring more and more of the internet over the past few years, Google has apparently agreed to give the UK government broad powers to "flag" videos they argue are bad
, even if they're not illegal. Ostensibly, the goal is to block videos that "proliferate jihadi material."
The YouTube permissions that Google has given the Home Office in recent weeks include the power to flag swaths of content “at scale” instead of only picking out individual videos.
They are in part a response to a blitz from UK security authorities to persuade internet service providers, search engines and social media sites to censor more of their own content for extremist material even if it does not always break existing laws.
And the UK government even admits that the videos it will be taken down are not illegal:
The UK’s security and immigration minister, James Brokenshire, said that the British government has to do more to deal with some material “that may not be illegal, but certainly is unsavoury and may not be the sort of material that people would want to see or receive”.
Of course, that kind of statement shows the program is wide open to abuse. The sort of material people would not want to see or receive? Well, then they just don't watch it
. Besides, who gets to decide what people would not want to see? Because there's lots of important content that a government might not want its citizens to see, but which are kind of important to a functioning democracy and open society.
While I'm sure the pressure from the government here was quite strong, it's upsetting to see Google cave in to these kinds of requests. Giving the UK government a giant "censor this video" button seems like exactly the wrong approach.