Skip to main content

Should Google censor an anti-Islam video?

By Jillian C. York, Special to CNN
September 16, 2012 -- Updated 1528 GMT (2328 HKT)
Pakistani demonstrators beat an effigy of Florida pastor Terry Jones during a protest against an anti-Islam film in Lahore on Monday, September 24. More than 50 people have died around the world in violence linked to protests against the low-budget movie, which mocks Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, since the first demonstrations erupted on September 11. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/world/photography/index.html'>See more of CNN's best photography</a>. Pakistani demonstrators beat an effigy of Florida pastor Terry Jones during a protest against an anti-Islam film in Lahore on Monday, September 24. More than 50 people have died around the world in violence linked to protests against the low-budget movie, which mocks Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, since the first demonstrations erupted on September 11. See more of CNN's best photography.
HIDE CAPTION
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Anti-U.S. demonstrations worldwide
Muslims hold demonstrations worldwide
Muslims hold demonstrations worldwide
Muslims hold demonstrations worldwide
Muslims hold demonstrations worldwide
Muslims hold demonstrations worldwide
Muslims hold demonstrations worldwide
Muslims hold demonstrations worldwide
Muslims hold demonstrations worldwide
Muslims hold demonstrations worldwide
Muslims hold demonstrations worldwide
Muslims hold demonstrations worldwide
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
Protesters storm U.S. Embassy buildings
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
144
145
146
147
148
149
150
151
152
153
154
155
156
157
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An anti-Islam video sparked protests in Libya and Egypt; in Libya, violence erupted
  • Jillian York: YouTube decided to block access to the video in the two countries
  • She says it is not in Google's best interest to be arbiter of what's acceptable
  • York: Google will have to explain why it censors videos in some cases but not others

Editor's note: Jillian C. York is director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She is a columnist for Al Jazeera.

(CNN) -- Just hours after the U.S. consulate came under attack in Libya, resulting in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three of his colleagues, YouTube blocked access to an anti-Islam video that sparked protests in Egypt and Libya. The video, which was made in America and crudely characterized the Prophet Mohammed, understandably offended many Muslims.

It would appear that the decision by Google -- which owns YouTube -- was based not on an order by either government but on its own concerns. "We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions," YouTube said in a statement. "This can be a challenge because what's OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video — which is widely available on the web — is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt we have temporarily restricted access in both countries. Our hearts are with the families of the people murdered in yesterday's attack in Libya."

Although the video remains accessible for the rest of the world, users in Egypt and Libya will, upon attempting to access it, encounter a message that it is not available in their jurisdiction. This is the same mechanism used when a copyright holder restricts content to a certain country.

Anti-Islam filmmaker questioned

Jillian C. York
Jillian C. York

Although restricting the video in the two countries might seem tempting in the wake of the horrific violence that occurred in Libya, it is in the best interest of neither the company nor, arguably, the citizens of those countries for Google to be the arbiter of acceptability.

When it comes to copyrighted content, YouTube is required to abide by the law, specifically the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which allows a copyright holder to report content posted by other users as belonging to them (it also allows for a rebuttal).

YouTube has also taken down content under informal pressure from governments, such as in 2010, when it removed clips reportedly linked to al Qaeda after a speech in which British Security Minister Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones stated that such videos "incite cold-blooded murder and as such are contrary to the public good."

Filmmaker escorted from home
Actress: I was misled about movie

When it comes to that type of content or the content in the video in question, the fact of the matter is that there are few regulations by which YouTube must abide.

In the United States, the content of the video would be deemed protected under the First Amendment. As an American company, YouTube itself also has a right to speech, which includes the right to make its own policies regarding what types of speech it deems appropriate to host.

Those policies have come under fire before. In 2007, a Turkish court ordered YouTube to be blocked in the country after the company refused to take down videos deemed insulting to the country's founder; the ban was reversed two years later. YouTube faced a similar ban in Pakistan in 2010 after refusing to take down cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

But while some governments think YouTube is too lax, some of its users have felt it is too restrictive.

Egyptian human rights activist Wael Abbas found his account deactivated in 2007 after posting violent content depicting police brutality in his country. Eventually, his account was restored and YouTube shifted its policies in response to his and other users' complaints, allowing content containing violence to be posted under an exception for videos that are "educational" or "documentary" in nature. This policy later enabled activists in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere to post documentation of regime violence.

In the current case, YouTube has stated that the video does not violate its terms of service. So if the video does not violate the company's rules and YouTube didn't receive an order from the two countries' governments (as far as we know), then the only explanation is that YouTube is determining on its own what serves the best interest of Libyans and Egyptians. This is, indeed, a rare move from the company and may eventually backfire.

News: Protests calm, but tensions still high

Take another case from this year. When Pakistan blocked Twitter after the company refused to take down offensive content, citizens were outraged, fearing it as a precursor to censorship during the election period. Had Twitter simply taken down the content, the story would have slipped by without notice; instead, the outrage of citizens forced the government to reverse its decision in less than a day.

Google should take the lead from Twitter, a smaller and younger company that, when faced with similar concerns, has stood strong, issuing a policy stating that content would be "withheld" in a certain country only in the face of a valid legal order and that the ban would be communicated transparently to all users.

Instead, by placing itself in the role of arbiter, Google is now vulnerable to demands from a variety of parties and will have to explain why it sees censorship as the right solution in some cases but not in others.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jillian C. York.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 12, 2014 -- Updated 1815 GMT (0215 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT