By Gerry Shih and Sue Zeidler
SAN FRANCISCO/LOS ANGELES, Sept 12 YouTube, the
video website owned by Google Inc, will not remove a
film clip mocking the Islamic Prophet Mohammad that has been
blamed for anti-U.S. protests in Egypt and Libya, but it has
blocked access to it in those countries.
The clip, based on a longer film, depicts the prophet as a
fraud and philanderer and has been blamed for sparking violence
at U.S. embassies in Cairo and Benghazi. U.S. Ambassador to
Libya Christopher Stevens and three other American diplomats
were killed by gunmen in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in
Benghazi on Tuesday.
Google's response to the crisis highlighted the struggle
f aced by the company, a nd others like it, to balance f ree s peech
wi th le gal and ethical c oncerns in an age when so cial media ca n
impact wo rld events.
A nalysts say they have seen a handful of Internet companies
generally take a m ore h ands-off approach to controversial
political speech, p e r haps mo tivated by idealistic and business
In a brief statement on Wednesday, Google officials rejected
t he notion o f removing the video on grounds it did not violate
YouTube's policies, but restricted viewers in Egypt and Libya
from loading it due to the special circumstances in the country.
"This video - which is widely available on the Web - is
clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube,"
Google said in a statement. "However, given the very difficult
situation in Libya and Egypt, we have temporarily restricted
access in both countries."
The company added: "Our hearts are with the families of the
people murdered in yesterday's attack in Libya."
The 14-minute clip is a trailer for a film called the
"Innocence of Muslims," w idely attributed to a man w ho described
himself as a California-based Israeli Jew named Sam Bacile.
Under Google's procedures, YouTube users can flag
objectionable content. It is reviewed by a team of Google staff
sc attered ar ound the world. B y late Thursday, a co py of the
video had been viewed more than 122,000 times and had been
flagged by users for removal, but it remained.
When videos come under review, YouTube weighs the content
against " community guidelines, " w hich p rohibit h ate speech,
in cluding speech that attacks or demeans a group based on
religion. The guidelines can be viewed at
"They've had a number of years to be thinking about free
speech issues," H arvard law professor J onathan Zittrain said.
"I can see them trying to keep an eye on the longer term and
not wanting to go down the slippery slope of entertaining more
and more demands to take things down. Th at can be corrosive in
the longer haul."
O bservers say Google has grown more averse to removing
videos. After its 2006 acquisition of YouTube, i t was accused of
censorship in several high-profile controversies.
"They're squeezed on all sides," said Rebecca MacKinnon, a
fellow at the New America Foundation. "But because of pressure
from a lot of people who feel they made the wrong decisions,
they now generally err on the side of keeping things up."
In recent years, Google has u sed t echnology to filter out
videos in certain countries to comply with local regulations.
T witter announced a similar technology to censor tweets by
country th is year.
O thers say Google has not done enough and bears a
responsibility to p olice hate- s peech more closely.
In 2008, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut accused Google
of not doing enough to remove YouTube videos produced by Islamic
militants. An Italian court in 2010 convicted four Google
executives of invasion of privacy after faulting the company for
not moving quickly enough to pull a video of an autistic child
On Wednesday, Afghanistan's general director of i nformation
t e chnology at the Ministry of Communications, Aimal Marjan, told
Reuters: " We have been told to shut down YouTube to the Afghan
public until the video is taken down."
YouTube did not respond to a request for comment on the
Afghan government's move.
Underscoring Google's quandary, s ome digital free expression
groups have criticized YouTube for censoring the video.
Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said
g iven G oogle' s strong track record of protecting free speech,
sh e was surprised t he company gave in t o pressure to se lectively
blo ck in an attempt "to be seen as doing something in response
to the violence."
"It is extremely unusual for YouTube to block a video in any
country without it being a violation of their terms of service
or in response to a valid legal complaint," Galperin said. " I'm
not sure they did the right thing."
Zittrain said th e dilemmas facing YouTube will persist as
the flow of online content continues to balloon.
"It's a more vibrant and chaotic speech marketplace than
we've ever known," Zittrain said.