Here's what we know: According to YouTube's parent company Google, the "Innocence of Muslims," a film blamed for inciting violence across nations in the Arab and Muslim world, is "clearly within" corporate guidelines. It doesn't violate YouTube's definition of hate speech, which must be against a person, not a group. The film is technically legal in many countries.
And yet YouTube has blocked the film in five countries (and counting). Google "temporarily restricted" access to the film in Libya and Egypt "given the very difficult situation" in the two countries, according to a company spokesperson. Google pulled the video in India and Indonesia because it violated local laws there, and yanked it in Malaysia on Monday after authorities asked to have it blocked because of the "explosive commotions and repercussions at hand." And though the White House asked Google to re-review the video and consider pulling it in the United States, Google has said it will stay online in the U.S.
We're thrust into the uncomfortable position of entrusting freedom of information and expression to Google -- an entity that has corporate values, but not a constitution; answers to shareholders and users, not citizens; and is more transparent than many other companies, but doesn't necessarily have to be. Here's what we don't know and should ask of a company that handles the majority of search queries worldwide, operates in over 100 countries around the world, sees 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute and boasts it "acts every day to promote and expand free expression online":
Who decided to pull the video and why? What sort of conversations did Google have with government officials about the film? (And let's not take "none" for an answer.) Why isn't this censorship, in places where the video is legal? Has violence subsided in places where YouTube pulled the film? Will it? And will the "temporarily restricted" video be re-posted in places where it's legal as soon as the violence subsides? Does banning the video reward violence? Is this a lesson that controversial content can be snuffed out if enough people are injured, enough buildings are burned and government officials ask nicely enough? Would the video have been removed if it was an article? Would the video have been removed if it had sparked violence by pro-democracy protesters? Let's imagine a YouTube video of police abusing a political protester spreads in Russia, where it sets off a wave of violent, anti-government protests by pro-democracy groups. Does that video stay, or does it go? When does Google listen to violence, and when does it ignore it? Is all violence created equal? Would the video have been removed if the violence had been in the United States? Say a YouTube clip about the Jewish faith -- one that's not hate speech according to YouTube's definition, or technically illegal -- sets off a wave of attacks against synagogues in the United States. Would it be blocked? If not, what does that tell us about the way Google views other parts of the world?
Does Google get to decide when other countries are "ready" for free speech?
And given another chance, would Google have acted the same way? Will it?
Google's response to these events has been ad hoc at best and dangerously haphazard at worst.
The company has made it explicitly clear that it doesn't want to play "gatekeeper". But for the time being, it's stuck policing, judging and, in some cases, booting the controversial content posted to its sites. We should seize on this remarkable sequence of events to evaluate whether, in this admittedly complicated situation, Google lived up to its own values and to our expectations.
Even those who agree with YouTube's decision to pull the video argue that Google has fallen short.
Forbes' Jeff Bercovici calls the removal of the video a "well-meaning mistake," pointing out that the ends haven't justified the means: "[T]here's scant reason to think they're making it better, and in the absence of such justification, it ought to err always on the side of upholding freedom of expression."
Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit focusing on consumer rights, argues that Google's move sets a dangerous precedent. "While their goal of trying to tamp down violence may have been sincere, the decision was misguided and opens the door for more censorship in the future," she writes in TechCrunch. Jillian York, also of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, concurs. "[B]y placing itself in the role of arbiter, Google is now vulnerable to demands from a variety of parties and will have to explain why it sees censorship as the right solution in some cases but not in others," she writes for CNN.
According to Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, in yanking the video, "Google's content-removal process left much to be desired." He argues that "it has become clear that Google needs a better system for dealing with hard speech questions" and suggests Google adopt a Wikipedia model in which the "regional experts or the serious users" from the YouTube community police the content themselves.
We're also seeing the limits of Google's transparency. In response to several questions and an interview request from The Huffington Post regarding the video's removal, a YouTube spokesperson said the company was "not doing any interviews" on the matter and offered the same statement already released to the press, again pointing to a 2007 blog post on its policies:
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.
But there's more to be said about this difficult decision made under difficult circumstances. Will Google say it?
The company, which now has unprecedented power to influence the course of world events, from snuffing out pro-democracy movements to shaping elections, needs to answer these questions. With so much power, we need more transparency from a company that is a window to the world.