The Innocence of YouTube

It's time for Internet giants to explain when censorship is and isn't OK.

In 2006 Egyptian human rights activist Wael Abbas posted a video online of police sodomizing a bus driver with a stick, leading to the rare prosecution of two officers. Later, Abbas's YouTube account was suddenly suspended because he had violated YouTube's guidelines banning "graphic or gratuitous violence." YouTube restored the account after human rights groups informed its parent company Google that Abbas's posts were a virtual archive of Egyptian police brutality and an essential tool for reform. After the Abbas case, Google concluded that some graphic content is too valuable to be suppressed, even where it is most likely to offend.

More recently, the Innocence of Muslims video led Google to bend its rules in the other direction, temporarily blocking the video in Egypt and Libya "given the very sensitive situations in these two countries," according to a statement given to reporters, even though those governments had not requested censorship and it was not violent, graphic, or directly hateful enough to violate YouTube's guidelines banning gratuitously violent images and hate speech. (The video has since been quietly unblocked in both countries.) From the beginning, Google kept the video up in most of the world -- and denied a request from the White House to remove it completely, but blocked it in countries including India and Indonesia where it has been ruled illegal, in keeping with Google policy to abide by its own rules as well as national laws.

In the crush of events, Google's decision was the best it could have done under the circumstances. Yet little of the rationale behind Google's decisions has been offered directly to YouTube users. Google has made a laudable public commitment to free expression and does a good job of disclosing how it responds to government demands around the world. Given the Internet giant's power to shape global public discourse, it should be equally transparent about its private governance of global speech.

Sovereigns of cyberspace such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter have no legislatures or courts, yet they are carrying out private worldwide speech "regulation" -- sometimes in response to government demands, sometimes to enforce their own terms of service and guidelines. As they attempt this unprecedented feat in a dizzying variety of social and political climates, they will continue to face complex dilemmas. In trying to develop "community guidelines" for the world, they will be both tempted and pressured to bend them to fit other new circumstances. With so many audiences ready to riot, so many provocateurs looking for excuses, and so many channels of communication between them, the companies cannot be expected to prevent -- or take responsibility for -- violence provoked by content posted on their services. What they can do, however, is to make a major contribution to both freedom and civility by explaining their de facto "jurisprudence" as it develops, to the public.

While Google does put up explanatory messages to users when a video has been restricted by government demand, it did not have an appropriate message on file for its decision in Libya and Egypt. For the first 24 hours, Egyptian users were shown a message claiming that the video had been blocked "due to a legal complaint by court order." After that, a message simply said "This video cannot be accessed from your country." While the Innocence of Muslims was an exceptional case of ad hoc censorship that must remain very rare if YouTube is to remain a platform for freedom of expression, it is inevitable that similarly urgent and difficult cases will arise in future. When such rare decisions are escalated to high-level executives who must sign off on deviations to standard procedures - as was the case in this instance - the company should consider posting more customized messages. This would have helped to promote the values that Google was attempting to balance.

The message might have read, for example, "This video clip has been temporarily blocked in your country due to a violent emergency, although no content posted by anybody on YouTube ever justifies violence." In the rest of the world where the video remains unblocked, a notice could read, "Some may prefer not to watch this video due to its offensive content, although it does not violate YouTube's community guidelines against hate speech and graphic or gratuitous violence."  (There is a precedent for this: Google posted an apology and disclaimer in 2009 when Google image searches for Michelle Obama were turning up a racist caricature as the top result.)  Explanations would set a good example of transparency and would contribute to debate about the contours of freedom of expression, especially in countries that are working out their own rules for regulating speech as they make transitions toward democracy, often in volatile contexts.

Google has already developed a robust set of policies and practices to handle government censorship demands, and to inform users about those demands, in its Transparency Report. The report lists requests from governments to block content, including but not limited to YouTube videos, and records Google's responses. It is fascinating reading, by turns amusing and sobering. In 2011 for example, Passport Canada asked Google to remove "a YouTube video of a Canadian citizen urinating on his passport and flushing it down the toilet. We did not comply with this request." Also last year, Google said it had "received a request from the UK's Association of Police Officers to remove five user accounts that allegedly promoted terrorism. We terminated these accounts because they violated YouTube's Community Guidelines, and as a result approximately 640 videos were removed."

Google could expand its Transparency Report to include the decisions it makes of its own accord, whether to remove or block controversial content -- and other Internet companies could follow suit. Columbia University Law School's Internet law guru Tim Wu has suggested setting up a community of experts, or of YouTube users, to give advice on tough questions of regulating speech online: a fine idea but decisions to block content must be made very quickly, before they become moot. In practice, Internet companies will probably continue to make their own decisions; outsiders and experts will continue to critique them after the fact.

Companies could invite discussion about their decisions, though, in online spaces connected to their transparency reports -- and to the very content that has sparked widespread controversy. Given that this entails a new kind of community platform, and editorial functions that may be incompatible with these companies' roles, discussions could be hosted by a neutral third party.

Such a third-party role has a precedent. Both Google and Twitter now link to the independent non-profit website Chilling Effects, which hosts copies of the "cease and desist" notices and other court orders requiring the companies to remove content from their services. A third-party website run by an international community of netizens who share core values of free expression, non-violence, and empathy between different cultures could curate,  and even translate, both mainstream and social media responses to controversial content. These cross-cultural stewards could then moderate a global conversation about what sorts of responses are reasonable and appropriate from different cultural perspectives.

Such a space could become a salutary forum for international debate: a gym for the civil exercise of freedom of speech in a world that needs the practice.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images



How dangerous radicals are reaping the benefits of financial unease.

See Ben Wildavsky on how higher education won the recession. 

The headlines crawl across a motley collection of extremist blogs, web forums, Facebook pages, and YouTube channels, like a Times Square ticker from hell. "Government Silently Positions for Martial Law as Financial Collapse Arrives in America." "Report: Soros Unloads All Investments in Major Financial Stocks; Invests Over $130 Million In Gold." "U.S Banks Told To Prepare For Total Collapse!" "Billions of $ to Israel as U.S. Government Flounders under Record Foreign Debt." "Banks Can Legally Steal Customer Funds From Private Checking Accounts."

As the U.S. economy has struggled back to life, its woes have emerged as a unifying theme among Americans on the fringe. The right-skewing Patriot movement may not share social values with left-leaning anarchists, but both groups point to and fixate on the same economic stories: bank insolvency, currency devaluation, derivatives fraud, total-collapse scenarios, the perniciousness of the Federal Reserve, and the need to return to a gold standard. Extremists in America -- from militias to the Black Bloc (the masked, militant subset of the Occupy movement), from sovereign citizens to homegrown jihadists -- are reading the same economic headlines and pondering the same potential tipping points. (Trustworthy data on how many extremists or extremist groups are active in the United States is hard to come by, but the extent of the phenomenon is undeniable. This article alone draws from upwards of 400 U.S.-based websites generating thousands of posts per day.)

Of course, the granddaddy of extremist financial scenarios -- The Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- long predates the Internet age. The infamous 1903 document was a hoax indicting Jewish bankers in a conspiracy to control the world, an idea that reached full, terrible maturity in Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, which blamed Jews for Germany's economic collapse following World War I.

Today's extremonomics scenarios owe more to current realities than historical lunacy. The DNA of these anti-Semitic fantasies lingers, sometimes reinterpreted as elaborate plots run by the Bilderberg Group or the Council on Foreign Relations. More and more often, however, the enemies of financial security are simply Wall Street and Washington. In a sense, these are reality-based conspiracy theories, eschewing the most extreme claims in favor of worst-case readings of economic realities and near approximations thereof. They are terrifyingly mainstream -- and that's what makes them so dangerous.

The trend toward reality-based conspiracies extends well beyond economics, but since 2008, the financial crisis and ongoing recession have provided copious grist for the mill, reinforcing the crucial expectation shared by most domestic extremists: America's imminent downfall.

You don't have to be extreme to worry about economic collapse. Over the last two decades, the complexity of the global financial system has grown exponentially. Incomprehensible products like derivatives are only the tip of the iceberg. The stock market has become so complicated it is mathematically impossible to design a model that can predict its behavior, let alone the rest of the global economy.

The perils of such a system are clear. Consider the following quotes, taken not from extremist websites but from coverage of the financial crisis by PBS's Frontline:

  • "[We were] sitting in that room with Hank Paulson saying to us, in very measured tones, no hyperbole, no excessive adjectives, that 'Unless you act, the financial system of this country and the world will melt down in a matter of days.'" --Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), former chairman of the Senate Banking Committee
  • "The chairman of the Fed said, 'If we do not act now, we will not have an economy by Monday.'" --Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), former speaker of the House
  • "If we did the thing wrong, everything was going under." --Austan Goolsbee, former Obama White House economic advisor
  • "We don't even have, as a country, in our regulators and our policymakers, the basic knowledge that they need about how our financial system operates." --Phil Angelides, former chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission

The last point is especially important because in a realm where no one speaks with authority, anyone can be an expert. And on the fringe, "expertise" is a hot commodity indeed. Compare the quotes above to recent comments on extremist blogs and websites:

  • "Trillions of dollars are owed, and as a country we have no way to make good on that debt. Confidence in the US dollar will soon be lost, and when that happens we will experience a collapse in the United States and the global economy unlike any that has ever been witnessed in the history of the world." --survivalist blogger
  • "The Federal Reserve cranked out an incredible 16 trillion dollars to bail out banks and major corporations between 2007 and 2010 in the aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis.… Now that the extent of the Federal Reserve bail out has become known, there will be public pressure against a similar massive bail out in the future and a good chance that the next big panic could lead to a stock market meltdown." --white nationalist David Duke
  • "A source in the Deutsche Bank claims that in 2008 our financial and monetary system completely collapsed and since that time the banking cartels have been 'propping up the system' to make it appear as if everything was fine." --Occupy blogger

Here's what's especially worrisome: Every credible piece of evidence that supports the economic-collapse scenario can be leveraged to sell two more extreme ideas, whether it's hoarding gold and canned goods or arming yourself heavily in advance of a breakdown in civil order. Reality-based arguments have a twofold effect -- attracting new recruits while reinforcing the commitment of those who are already true believers. But to what end?

Consider Greece, a real-life test lab where some of the worst-case scenarios of economic collapse and civil unrest are coming true on a daily basis. Hundreds of extremist blog posts over the last 12 months have discussed developments in Greece, where both anarchists and neo-Nazis have increased their visibility and violent aggression ever since mainstream politicians drove the economy right up to the edge of the proverbial cliff. The neo-Nazi political party Golden Dawn won nearly 7 percent of the national vote in this June's parliamentary elections, a massive increase from the 0.29 percent it netted in 2009.

Although Greece has not (yet) toppled into total chaos and open insurrection, there's no question extremists are making headway and giving hope to their counterparts in the United States. American anarchists, neo-Nazis, and Anonymous cyber-radicals have all issued statements of solidarity with their counterparts in Greece, and many are watching the situation there as a harbinger for the future of the United States.

One prominent American anarchist website recently summed up the lesson of Greece and the gift bestowed by the economic crisis:

Let us arm ourselves with the courage and determination to face this world down, let us rid ourselves of resignation and acceptance, let us embrace what was unimaginable yesterday, and is today entirely possible: insurrection against the existent.

Is it all just talk? Maybe. But American extremists of every stripe are increasingly following the same headlines and hearing the same alarm bells, most visibly in the economic realm, but also in stories of mass shootings, government surveillance, and civil liberties. Some might be tempted to take action. After 9/11, it's anyone's guess how Americans and their government might respond to a spree of attacks from every political direction. Here's hoping we never find out.

See Joseph S. Nye on how declinist pundits won the recession. 

Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images