Last week, we reported on Google's decision to block
access in Egypt and Libya to the controversial, hate-mongering video that's been cited as leading to the violent reactions in the Middle East. We wondered if this was the right move, noting the seriousness of the violence and the ridiculousness of the video. However, Paul Levy's thoughts on this
make sense. While we may worry about what line Google may draw, it is a private company and it's not doing this due to government pressure, but as part of it's own decision:
Its removal is not the same as deferring to government censorship, and as much as I hate to give mob violence the satisfaction of an effective heckler’s veto, we cannot expect that online service providers will never remove material simply because it is deemed offensive by wide swaths of the population. Moreover, I can’t help but wondering if the violent response isn’t just what the film-makers were hoping for. So by leaving the image on its site so that we can understand the controversy, while taking it down where broad access to the material is likely to cause the greatest harm, Google has made a comprehensible judgment.
As such, even if we disagree with the choice, it's a defensible choice.
However, things may have crossed the line late last week. There were reports that the White House strongly suggested that YouTube pull the video entirely
But when it's the White House suggesting that, it's a pretty clear situation in which the President is applying pressure on a private company to censor speech. Of course, we've seen this before, though not with the White House directly. Four years ago, we saw Senator Joe Lieberman similarly pressure YouTube
to start blocking "terrorist" videos on YouTube. Lieberman, of course, loves to pressure private companies into blocking speech. He did similar things to try to censor Wikileaks
and even pushed some bad legislation
to try to increase censorship powers of the federal government.
Either way, the White House putting pressure on Google has troubling implications, even if we agree that the video in question is a hate-mongering disgrace. As various free speech activists told Politico (link above) there are some troubling implications here:
"There's no indication that the government is questioning the right of these idiots to make that repellent film. On the other hand, it does make us nervous when the government throws its weight behind any requests for censorship," the American Civil Liberties Union's Ben Wizner said in an interview Friday.
"I am actually kind of distressed by this," said Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Even though there are all these great quotes from inside the White House saying they support free speech....by calling YouTube from the White House, they were sending a message no matter how much they say we don't want them to take it down, when the White House calls and asks you to review it, it sends a message and has a certain chilling effect."
Google, for its part, has actually stood up to the White House on this one, and said that it won't pull the clip
, though it had begun blocking the video in India and Indonesia, where they determined the video itself was illegal, and the company needed to comply with local laws.
Of course, all of this is unlikely to have much, if any, impact on the violence and anger. And that's part of the problem and the ridiculousness with arguing for censorship. It seems quite likely that a very large percentage of those involved in the mob violence to this haven't even seen the video themselves. Caving in to censorship "hints" from government doesn't actually hide the content or calm much anger. In fact, it's likely to just draw more attention to it. The video is despicable and the reaction to it is horrifying on a number of levels. The loss of life is massively upsetting, especially over something so stupid. So I can certainly understand the instinct to try to "do something," and to reach for the easiest target: censoring the video. But not only would it be completely ineffectual, it opens up a whole host of other problems. Dealing with hate speech by seeking to censor it almost always just encourages more hate speech (and even more idiotic violent reactions). It may be an "easy" thing to do, but it's no solution to deep-seeded problems. It just creates new problems.