Viral Content: Free Speech, Hate Speech
WNR’s Caroline Batten examines free speech, prejudice, and Google censorship in the reaction to the controversial film "Innocence of Muslims" in this op-ed.
Storified by Caroline Batten · Wed, Sep 26 2012 15:58:11
The now-infamous “Innocence of Muslims” video has taken the Internet by storm. The top three versions of the full film and trailer posted on YouTube have garnered over 20 million views altogether as of press time.
Much of the media coverage of the movie is about the protests it’s provoked, from Morocco to Indonesia.
In the comment thread for this BBC article, dozens of commenters called the offended Muslim protesters “backwards” — those comments, along with the vast majority of comments in the thread, have now been removed by the BBC. Comments that remain call the West “the civilized world” and say that “Islam is welcome to its superstitions.”
Similar comments also appear on YouTube and at the bottom of articles on CNN and the L.A. Times. Most of the comments vehemently champion the video as an expression of free speech. One tells Muslim protesters: “In modern times, we have free speech. Get with the century.” Many of these comments have been labeled hate speech.
But statements like these point to bigger questions: how does free speech come into play with the “Innocence of Muslims” video and the protests that have followed? Does the American reaction imply that we believe Muslims aren’t “ready” for free speech, even though the protesters are exercising free speech by protesting this video? Why is YouTube refusing to call the video itself hate speech? And who is deciding which viewers can view which content?
These questions lead us into the furor over Google and YouTube’s refusal to remove the video from their sites. Google owns YouTube, where the video was originally posted.
According to the New York Times, Google refused a request from the White House to take the video down completely, saying the video doesn’t violate YouTube’s terms of service banning hate speech.
YouTube’s terms of service state,
“We don’t permit hate speech (speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/gender identity).”
So why isn’t “Innocence of Muslims” hate speech? The video condemns the entire religion of Islam — but that’s precisely the problem. To qualify as “hate speech,” a statement must be about people who, for example, live in a certain nation, or practice a certain religion, but criticism of that nation or that religion as an entity is not “hate speech” under YouTube’s definition.
“Sometimes there is a fine line between what is and what is not considered hate speech. For instance, it is generally okay to criticize a nation, but not okay to make insulting generalizations about people of a particular nationality.”
Versions of the trailer and full movie remain available for viewing in the United States, in keeping with Google’s 2007 policy statement that “Google is not, and should not become, the arbiter of what does and does not appear on the Web.”
But Google has, in fact, decided that this content can’t appear on the Web in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Libya, and Egypt.
Google has blocked the video in India, Indonesia and Malaysia to comply with local laws; the governments of those countries have asked Google to take the video down because, according to the Times, it violates restrictions on “content that provokes enmity.”
But Google didn’t take the video down in Libya or Egypt to comply with the law; it took the video down because, the corporation stated, the “situation” in those countries is “delicate.”
Despite the extremely offensive content of “Innocence of Muslims,” Google’s selective restriction of the video raises a lot of questions.
If Google is in fact censoring this video in certain countries, why does Google have this power? As both the New York Times and the Washington Post point out, such an ability is the product of the Internet age: when people across the world are distributing information on sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, those sites become content curators — as corporations, they have autonomy over what they display.
But when one of the actresses in the “Innocence of Muslims” video sued YouTube and Google, lawyers said that under federal law, neither site is liable for the content they handle. “Hosts,” or sites like Google and YouTube that provide access to other users’ content, are never legally responsible for what they display.
The consequences of blocking the video could be far-reaching. Google has said they will block the video temporarily, but has not said whether it will be available again. If the video does become available again, is Google qualified to decide when and why?
Does it make a political or cultural statement when a country is deemed unable to view certain online content? Should an American corporation be allowed to say what a viewer in Egypt can watch? In reaction to the protests against “Innocence of Muslims,” many commenters say Muslims are too “backwards” to deal with free speech in the modern world. By selectively censoring the video in some Muslim-majority nations — and saying Egypt and Libya are too “delicate” to have access to full content — YouTube and Google are tacitly agreeing with that prejudice.