White House Goes Too Far In Asking Google To Pull Controversial Video

from the there's-this-first-amendment-thing dept

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. Of course, they didn't come out and say that exactly, but rather suggested that YouTube "review the video to see if it was in compliance with their terms of use."

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.

Filed Under: censorship, free speech, pressure, video, white house, youtube
Companies: google


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  1. icon
    Austin (profile), 17 Sep 2012 @ 2:14pm

    I agree with not pulling it, but...

    I agree with the decision to not pull the video here in the US, but there is one other thing to think about when trying to understand why Youtube did this elsewhere, and I think it's a key point that often gets lost upon those of us who live in places with no (or at least minimal) censorship.

    The people of Egypt have censorship, as do the citizens of Libya, and frankly most of the middle east. It is widespread, it is pervasive, and it is absolute. This means that, by definition, any video that is allowed to air in these countries and originates from them has a certain implicit amount of government approval. This isn't to say that, in some "looser" censorship states, objectionable material isn't occasionally allowed to be released, but it is rare.

    That said, a large amount of this rage is a result not so much of the video itself, as a misunderstanding by many people that the video was somehow sponsored by the US government. To a US citizen, the very idea is crazy - and even more so after seeing the thing. (Even atomic-era PSAs had better production value than this drivel...) However, in countries where censorship is pervasive, the mere fact that one can view a video at all carries with it an implicit level of, if not endorsement, at least acknowledgement that the media in question is considered to be non-objectionable.

    This is really the crux of the problem, and in a way, it says more about the governments of the countries where the outrage erupted than anything else. The fact that friendly foreign nationals are being murdered in cold blood on what is supposed to be sovereign US territory is less a statement about the video or even the asswipes who made it, and more a statement about the dangers of censorship itself. That is, once it becomes "the norm" then anything that remains uncensored has an automatic "seal of approval" in the minds of viewers. This makes it considerably worse when a would-be censored video slips by and winds up in the wild.

    In short, the concept of having no censorship at all is so foreign to these people, they were left with no plausible alternative (mentally) except to assume that the mere existence of the video meant it was sanctioned by the host country's government. That's the true problem here.

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