YouTube’s Censorship of Anti-Islam Video Raises Numerous Questions Around Online Free Expression
The reactions over the past week to a video, ‘The Innocence of Muslims’—made by an Egyptian-American Christian and later shown by Egyptian television, sparking riots—have varied wildly. While some governments have banned YouTube (where a trailer of the video remains available) altogether, YouTube chose on its own volition to block access to the video in Egypt and Libya.
Other countries have submitted legal requests for YouTube to block the video, to which the company has complied. The fact that the video seems to have been made for the sole purpose of angering Muslims has caused some to ask if it would pass the free speech test in the United States, while others have defended the video as protected speech.
These events raise a number of questions about the limits of online free expression. As EFF’s Eva Galperin wrote for TechCrunch, one concern is the fact that the White House reportedly asked YouTube to review the video to ensure its compliance with the company’s terms of service. While it does not seem that the White House’s request was anything more than just that, as Galperin commented to Politico: “[W]hen the White House calls and asks you to review it, it sends a message and has a certain chilling effect.”
A second concern is the apparent fact that, in making their decision to censor in Egypt and Libya, YouTube did not consult with local civil liberties groups in either country. Whereas the later blockages—in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and by the time of publication, perhaps elsewhere—were determined by a local court in each respective country, the decision to block the video in Egypt and Libya was determined solely by a company in the United States with presumably no local expertise. Given the freedoms that Egyptians and Libyans risked their lives for during the uprisings of 2011, it is a shame that a Western company would serve as arbiter of what they are and are not capable of viewing online.
YouTube’s actions also serve as a reminder that the Internet, what we often think of as the “new public sphere,” is not, in fact, public. As Andrew F. Sellars of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society’s Citizen Media Law Project wrote this week, we must recognize “a few critical consequences of allowing speech to be judged by private parties,” namely:
1) The fact that the leading American Internet companies have set the bar for free speech lower than the First Amendment.
2) That placing private organizations in the position of arbiter leaves us with no formal remedy should we feel that a decision is unfair, and
3) There is nothing to keep the free speech practices of these companies from changing without warning, and nothing that requires consistency from them.
In other words, while it may be that this case was exceptional, there is nothing to prevent YouTube from making similar decisions in the future.
We are also, of course, concerned about the fact that several countries have either ordered the video blocked or have blocked YouTube entirely. Thus far, the video is inaccessible in at least eight countries, with threats from others to censor in the coming days. We will continue to track instances of censorship and present them on the Deeplinks blog.
Jillian C. York is EFF’s Director for International Freedom of Expression. She specializes in free speech issues in the Arab world, and is also particularly interested the effects of corporate intermediaries on freedom of expression and anonymity, as well as the disruptive power of global online activism. Prior to joining EFF, Jillian spent three years at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, where she worked on several projects including the OpenNet Initiative.