In an unusual move, YouTube announced today that it was blocking access to a video showing clips from "The Innocence of Muslims"—an anti-Islamic film that depicts Prophet Mohammed as a philanderer who approves of child abuse—after the film sparked violent protests in Egypt and Libya.
In a public statement issued by the company, Google-owned YouTube said:
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 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.
It is extremely rare for YouTube to restrict access to a video that, by the company's own admission, falls within its Terms of Service, without a valid court order. It is rarer still for YouTube to issue a public comment on the matter. YouTube may be subject to legal pressure in Egypt, where Google has offices that may render the company subject to Egyptian law, but it has no such offices in Libya. Furthermore, there is no evidence of pressure from the Egyptian or the Libyan government on YouTube, in their statement or elsewhere. YouTube appears to have made the decision to self-censor on their own.
Temporary censorship that is geographically-limited is certainly an improvement over the reaction to the video in Kabul, where the Afghani government has blocked YouTube altogether in order to prevent Afghans from seeing the video. "We have been told to shut down YouTube to the Afghan public until the video is taken down," Aimal Marjan, General Director of Information Technology at the Ministry of Communications, told Reuters. But pointing out that it could be worse is not a sufficient excuse for YouTube’s decision to limit freedom of expression on the Internet.
Internet companies have clashed with governments over offensive content before and will doubtless continue to do so into the future. Pakistan has been blocking websites for hosting content it deems offensive since 2007, when it blocked the entirety of Google-owned web-publishing platform Blogger. In 2010, Pakistan blocked Wikipedia, YouTube, and Facebook for hosting content related to a contest called "Draw Mohammed Day," in which participants were encouraged to depict the Prophet. The censorship did not end there. Just this May, Pakistan blocked Twitter because the site still displayed links to a version of the contest hosted on Facebook. The block lasted for a total of eight hours, but it inspired immediate outrage among Pakistanis, including Huma Yusuf, a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, who expressed fear that the block would be a precursor to Internet censorship surrounding the upcoming general election. In the end, Twitter held its ground and did not remove the links, but Facebook, which had been blocked in previous years, bowed to pressure by the Pakistani government and restricted content to users in Pakistan.
It is easy to understand why YouTube might feel compelled to act in response to the rioting over this video, especially after three U.S. embassy employees were killed in the Libyan city of Benghazi, but the blame for the violence lies not with the video, but with the perpetrators. Once YouTube has made the decision to pro-actively censor its content, they start down a slippery slope that ends in YouTube Knows Best moral policing of every video on their site. It is disappointing to see YouTube turn its back on policies that have allowed it to become a such a strong platform for freedom of expression. We hope that this new-found enthusiasm for pro-active censorship is a temporary aberration rather than a sign of things to come.