In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, there is an interesting article by George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen. Rosen notes that a few people at Google who determine what sites (including YouTube videos, now owned by Google) to block access to, either as a result of website policies, government protests or court orders, “have more influence over the contours of online expression than anyone else on the planet.” Google’s principle is to block access to sites that clearly violate national laws for users who are in that country. But sometimes the violation is less than clear. For example, Turkey for a while blocked access to YouTube and demanded that videos offending Mustafa Kemal (“Ataturk”, the founder of the modern Turkish state) be removed. Since insulting Ataturk is a crime in Turkey, Google complied, blocking access to these videos in Turkey (although it is not so “clear” to me why a video alleging that Kemal Pasa was homosexual is an insult, even if it is intended as such). But the Turkish government continues to block YouTube, demanding that access to these videos be blocked everywhere.
Indicative of the conflicting pressures Internet companies are subjected to, there is a bipartisan bill pending in the US Congress that would require to disclose to a specially created State Department office all content they filter in response to foreign governments’ demands. (Which doesn’t mean that there are no demands in America for content filtering; former vice-presidential candidate Senator Joe Lieberman has asked that YouTube remove all content “produced by Islamist terrorist organisations,” whether or not it contains “hate speech” or incitement to violence.) The companies instead favour voluntary standards, and have been meeting with civil liberties groups to work these out. (Just as, one might remember, Internet companies in China have developed a voluntary standard of self-censorship.) I find some of these voluntary measures rather eyebrow-raising; for example, Orkut, Google’s social networking site, prohibits “criticizing a religion”!
Most complaints about YouTube videos are handled by “a 20-something with a laptop in San Bruno,” which, Rosen writes, “might not instill faith” in the vetting process. A Columbia law professor named Tim Wu notes that growing uncertainty about what Google allows and what it blocks ultimately threatens users’ trust in the company, and “as soon as you lose trust in Google, it’s over for them.”