It might be an example of closing the barn door too late, but YouTube’s decision to block Libyan and Egyptian users from seeing the film mocking the Prophet Mohammed is a reminder of the tricky balancing act the video-sharing platform faces when dealing with controversial content.
Under YouTube’s approach, it is not okay to post material that criticizes the King of Thailand or denigrates the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
However, it is okay to make fun of the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi or the Pakistani military.
Local laws and sensibilities guided YouTube’s past decisions and that approach was also cited when the company explained its decision to temporarily block the anti-Muslim movie Innocence of Muslims in Egypt and Libya because of the violence it triggered there.
“We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what’s okay in one country can be offensive elsewhere,” YouTube said in statement Wednesday.
YouTube has always reviewed and sometimes removed footage that users flagged as hate speech, pornography or gratuitous violence.
The clips from Innocence of Muslims, which were first uploaded in July and has since been widely duplicated, will remain on YouTube because it is “clearly within our guidelines,” the company said.
“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 [the] attack in Libya,” the statement concluded.
In addition, the Afghan government has on its own said it would ask local Internet providers to cut off access to the Innocence of Muslims video, underlining that many times it is not the online operator but local authorities who throttle access.
Syria, China and Iran have all restricted access to Google and YouTube.
YouTube remained accessible in Afghanistan, but not the controversial video.
How YouTube dances around conflicting national standards – the “what’s okay in one country can be offensive elsewhere” principle – is better appreciated when looking at its parent company’s “transparency reports.”
In its latest release last June, Google detailed how it deals with hundreds of requests it receives from governments around the world to remove YouTube videos, Google search results and other content it manages.
“Just like every other time before, we’ve been asked to take down political speech. It’s alarming not only because free expression is at risk, but because some of these requests come from countries you might not suspect,” Google senior policy analyst Dorothy Chou said in an official blog post accompanying the release of the transparency report.
The report singled out Spanish and Polish authorities for requesting the removal of content critical of local officials.
Still, the largest number of requests came from the United States.
In the last six months of last year, for example, Google received 187 requests from U.S. officials to take out more than 6,000 items from its various platforms, including more than 1,400 YouTube.
Most of the complaints cited defamation or privacy and personal security concerns. The company says it complied with 42 per cent of the requests.
The Canadian government was unsuccessful, though, when it asked for the deletion of a YouTube video where a man peed on his Canadian passport then flushed it down a toilet.
However, at the request of the government in Turkey, Google removed a video and blocked Turkish users from accessing six other videos.
The videos were alleged to have contravened Turkish law Number 5816, which makes it a crime to denigrate “the memory of Atatürk.”
In India, Google restricted access to videos that “appeared to violate local laws prohibiting speech that could incite enmity between communities.” However, content on the Orkut social network that was critical of an Indian politician remained because that didn’t seem to contravene any statutes.
Google also complied when, citing local law, German authorities asked for the removal of content “touting Nazi memorabilia, extreme violence or pornography.”
The company also removed most of the 149 YouTube clips that Thailand wanted taken down because they violated the country’s lèse-majesté law.
Google, however, turned down the Pakistani Ministry of Information Technology’s request to yank six videos that “satirized the Pakistan Army and senior politicians,” the report said.
The company also said no to Italian police, who wanted YouTube to take down a video making fun of the flamboyant Mr. Berlusconi.