The Slippery Definition of Hate Speech: Google's Great YouTube Hypocrisy

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on September 15, 2012

From The News Desk

Google announced it would not take down a video trailer that mocks Islam’s prophet, portraying Muhammad as a juvenile, oversexed buffoon. This video, titled "Innocence of Muslims," has led to a rash of escalating protests across the Middle East and may have contributed to the murder of four Americans working for the State Department, including the Ambassador to Libya.

Now, the over-the-top, violent response to a low-budget piece-of-crap video allegedly made by some Coptic wing nut may be hard to understand. The Onion, with typical go-for-the-jugular panache, sums up the views of many of us with a lewd and purposefully offensive cartoon that portrays cherished figures from four religious faiths engaged in depraved sexual acts. The caption: “No One Murdered Because of This Image.”

Still, Youtube has been thrust into the middle of an international crisis, and it can’t hide. Mind you, Google, by allowing the video to stay up, is not breaking any laws — at least here in the U.S. As a private company it and it alone decides what content it allows or rejects on its network. This is not a First Amendment issue, even though the U.S. government requested that Google remove the video. But the Obama Administration can’t force Google to do it. If it did, that would violate free speech.

Explaining its decision to block the video in India, Indonesia, Egypt and Libya but allowing it to be viewed in the U.S. and elsewhere, YouTube, in a statement, 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, we've restricted access to it in countries where it is illegal such as India and Indonesia as well as in Libya and Egypt given the very sensitive situations in these two countries. This approach is entirely consistent with principles we first laid out in 2007.
While the Electronic Frontier Foundation criticizes Google for pulling the video from Egypt,  India, Indonesia, and Libya, it applauds it for keeping the video available in the U.S. and elsewhere: "Once YouTube has made the decision to pro-actively censor its content, [it starts] down a slippery slope that ends in YouTube Knows Best moral policing of every video on their site."

ButYoutube has never been the free speech Eden that the EFF implies. Google already censors what videos Youtube serves to the public, and it has policies in place to cover this controversial video. You've never seen a nipple on Youtube, have you? No naked bodies, no porn, hardcore this or that.

In fact, Youtube reserves the right to censor all sorts of stuff, according to its Community Guidelines. Some of the banned material includes:

  • Animal abuse, drug abuse, under-age drinking, smoking and bomb-making.
  • Graphic and gratuitous violence.
  • Gross-out videos of accidents, dead bodies “or similar things intended to shock or disgust.”
  • Predatory behavior, stalking, threats, harassment, intimidation, invading privacy, revealing other people’s personal information, and inciting others to commit violent acts.
  • 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”).
If YouTube, after reviewing a video, determines that it violates community Guidelines, it promises to “remove” it.

Now, before you flame me in the comments below let me emphasize that I back Google 100% over its right to decide what content Youtube serves. The problem is that Google isn't consistently following its own rules. YouTube already makes decisions on whether some videos violate its terms of service and removes them. If so, why doesn’t this video fall under Youtube’s ban on “hate speech”? It would be hard to argue that it doesn’t “demean” Islam. After all, Youtube removes “gross-out” videos and those with nudity because it might offend some users. Eating from a plate of shit might violate Youtube's guidelines, but Google draws the line on a video that offends millions of people across the globe? Likewise, it says it bans videos that might incite violent acts. Is murder not a violent act?

Yet if someone sent YouTube a take down notice claiming copyright, Google, under the fair harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, would likely pull the video without even checking into the validity of the claim.

It appears that Google will not be pressured by murder, violent protests, or an international diplomatic crisis, but send some lowly copyright lawyer after it and Google would cave in no time.