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.