Google and Internet Freedom Part I (The Plight of the Modern Day Big Brother)
Google is by no means, “Big Brother,” but it certainly has been making some big calls recently, with regards to its decision to keep the controversial video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” on YouTube.
Despite requests from the government of the United States, Bangladesh, and Russia, Google has maintained the video on its main site, and only blocked it in India and Indonesia, where it violates local law. To justify its decision, Google asserts that the video does not violate its terms of service or constitute hate speech because it is directed against Islam, not Muslims as a group.
This recent controversy brings to light grave ethical and political implications.
Should Google be the only party to have jurisdiction over YouTube? What does freedom of speech and press look like in a realm that transcends national, religious, and geopolitical boundaries?
Google’s recent actions are problematic in 3 ways:
- In an effort to preserve free speech, Google premises its defense on imposing a blanket principle that other countries and cultures may not subscribe to. Satire of Islam may not qualify as hate speech in the United States, but it certainly does figure into the definition that many countries, such as Bangladesh, espouse. (For different standards of hate speech around the world, see: ). By refusing to take down the video, Google is forcing these countries’ hands in banning YouTube altogether – which is what Bangladesh has done, and what Russia is considering.
- By refusing to assume a “Big Brother” role, Google is ironically becoming “Meta-Big Brother.” Although protests have erupted in more than twenty countries, Google has only temporarily blocked the video in Egypt and Libya. In response to U.S requests to take the video down in other protest-ridden nations, Google has responded that it will do so if these situations become exigent. This begs the question, since when did Google become the main arbiter of geopolitics? Given that Google removes videos that violate local copyright law, it should accede to local standards for hate speech as well. With regard sensitive videos such as “The Innocence of Muslims,” Google can be “hands-off” by allowing governments to make the final call.
- Finally, Google needs more restrictions on permissible video content beyond its terms of service and prohibiting hate speech. Although the “Innocence of Muslims” may not hit close to home for many Americans, the video of the former U.S Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens certainly does. While it is certainly within the purview of Google’s policies to allow the video of former Ambassador Steven’s brutal treatment to be shown, is it ethical to allow the footage in light of the recent tragedy?
Google needs to recognize that the line between inaction and action is a dubious one. Although it wants to be as unobtrusive as possible, the plight of the Modern Day Big Brother is that it has no choice but to involve itself in governing the internet realm. Whether it chooses to keep the video up or to take it down is setting a unmistakable precedent. Given that Google has already conceded that free speech needs to be reined in under certain circumstances, it should take the first step in further defining its place in the YouTube community.
*Not everyone agrees with my views. In fact, Kristian will be posting a rejoinder on Wednesday. Stay tuned!