Skip to main content

Should Google censor an anti-Islam video?

By Jillian C. York, Special to CNN
updated 11:28 AM EDT, Sun September 16, 2012
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
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT