The responsibilities of social media companies over free speech
By Sarah Joseph
The global uproar over the YouTube trailer for Innocence of Muslims may have subsided, but the controversy lingers. Last week I wrote about the US obligations regarding that video, and concluded that it was under no international obligation to censor the movie. In fact, it is forbidden under its own domestic Constitution from doing so.
The (non) blocking of access by YouTube
But what about YouTube’s obligations? YouTube is a subsidiary of Google, and owns the platform upon which the video was placed. It has the right, if it wishes, to remove the video. To do so would not breach US law, as it is a private body which is not bound by the US Constitution. Indeed, the White House requested that Google remove the video, but Google has refused.
It is tempting to say that YouTube should take the video down, given the mayhem that the video has sparked, and the almost universal view that it is a grubby film that adds little of value to the sum of human experience. However, a take-down would shut the gate after the horse has bolted. Copies of the video have likely proliferated, including on sites beyond Google. In any case, I doubt many of the rioters have viewed the movie: many are simply angry at its very existence.
Google has blocked access to the video in some countries, including Indonesia and India, as the video’s content breaches the law of those States. It also chose to take the site down in Egypt and Libya, due to the volatile situation in those countries. I will return to that decision below.
Censorship and social media companies
It is trite to note that the internet and social media are incredibly powerful forces. After all, social media played a key role in the overthrows of long-standing dictators in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011. Now a YouTube video has sparked protests and riots across the globe, with the latter leading, tragically, to several deaths. It is fair to say that internet and social companies have, perhaps unwittingly, come to exercise significant power over political and social developments.
The most popular and influential social media platforms are run by private companies, namely Google, Facebook and Twitter. What responsibilities should these companies have with regard to the content they host? In particular, should they exercise censorship powers beyond that mandated by the laws of the States they operate in? Should, for example, YouTube have a “tougher” censorship policy and clamped down on Innocence of Muslims before it became uncontrollably viral?
A starting point for discussion is to examine the companies’ censorship policies. YouTube’s Community Guidelines prohibit hate speech, as well as other “bad stuff” like abuse of animals or instructions on bomb making. Its policy on violent videos was amended in 2007 after it was criticised for removing videos showing police abuse in Egypt. YouTube clearly embraced the potential for its site to highlight human rights abuses (which sometimes requires the presentation of violence).
Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities provides that users cannot post content that “is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence”.
Both YouTube and Facebook have the unilateral right to remove content in accordance with their policies, and there are no avenues to appeal their decisions. After all, they are their sites.
Certain take-down decisions have attracted controversy. For example, Facebook eventually removed a site promoting a Third Intifada in Israel and the Occupied Territories after initially resisting requests to do so, as well as a site associated with the Syrian military. But what is Facebook’s criterion for “taking sides” regarding the political and revolutionary messages that might turn up on its site? Given the contemporary importance of Facebook pages in promoting political activism, Facebook must tread a fine line between allowing its platform to be used for the organisation of peaceful protests (which may easily contain comments that are far from peaceful) and pages that promote violence and hate. But how does Facebook determine its own political red lines?
Social media companies have enormous potential power over the true global extent of the enjoyment of free expression, which is not commensurate with their expertise or their accountability. After all, they are not traditional media companies well-versed in making editorial decisions on what to and what not to include in the limited space of a newspaper or a half hour broadcast. Rather, they are the hosts of unlimited amounts of information created and disseminated by others.
Given those realities, the best policy is probably that adopted by Twitter, which exercises less discretion over the removal of content. Instead, it will “withhold” tweets in accordance with valid legal orders. It will endeavour to inform the user concerned and publicise the fact of the withdrawal. It will also presumably still remove tweets which clearly breach its “content boundaries”, but these are significantly narrower than those of YouTube or Facebook.
Twitter has largely knocked the free speech ball back into the arena of States, which is probably where it should be. It, like YouTube and Facebook, lacks the credentials to fairly and consistently arbitrate free speech.
Innocence of Muslims: too incendiary to leave up?
Returning to Innocence of Muslims, YouTube has blocked the video in Egypt and Libya of its own accord due to the “difficult” situations in those countries, rather than any identified breach of its guidelines. I said in last week’s post that I was not “perturbed” over those actions. Without wishing to impugn Google’s humanitarian motives in taking such action, I now believe that I may have spoken too soon.
First of all, the upload can be removed in accordance with YouTube’s normal policy by legal order in either Egypt or Libya. Perhaps surprisingly, no such order was apparently made. Secondly, as noted above, YouTube’s measures were probably too late to make much of a difference to the protests and riots on the ground. Thirdly, YouTube risks setting a precedent whereby it rewards the unreasonable and unjustified reactions of a violent few by giving in to their demands. Such an action may simply legitimise more violent reactions the next time incendiary content is placed online. Free speech must not be held hostage in that way.
Below is a video of Professor Sarah Joseph’s appearance on Channel 7’s Weekend Sunrise to discuss “Innocence of Muslims” and the limits of free speech.
Sarah Joseph does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.
22 responses to “Social media, free speech and Innocence of Muslims”
Appreciation to my father who told me regarding this web site, this webpage is really awesome.
Magnificent beat ! I would like to apprentice while you amend your site, how can i subscribe forr a bog webb
site? The account aided me a acceptable deal. I had been a ittle
bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered bbright clear idea
Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seeems as though
you relied on the video to make your point. You obviously know what youre talking
about, why waste your intelligence oon just posting videos tto your werblog when you could be giving us something infomative to read?
I was very pleased to discover this page. I wanted to thank you for your time for this wonderful read!!
I definitely loved every part of it and i also have you saved
to fav to see new stuff in your web site.
Unlike propane baths, these showers don’t truly
warmth the water, hence the water temp going in will be the
identical to the water temperature developing.
Consequently to quantity it-all upward; similar
to judgements in living, the choice between independence backpacking and residing in camp grounds
should be produced centered on person wants.
I know this web page offers quality dependent content
and additional data, is there any other website which provides these kinds of information in quality?
Thanks on your marvelous posting! I definitely enjoyed reading
it, you aree a great author. I wikl be sure to bookmark your blog and will eventually
come back at some point. I want to encourage youu to definitely continue your great writing, have a nice holiday weekend!
Hi! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m
absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new
This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community
in the same niche. Your blog provided us valuable information
to work on. You have done a extraordinary job!
Wow, this post is fastidious, my sister is analyzing such things, thus I am going
to let know her.
Neat blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere?
A design like yours with a few simple tweeks
would really make my blog shine. Please let me know where you got your design.
Hello! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers and starting a new project in a community in the same niche.
Your blog provided us beneficial information to work
on. You have done a marvellous job!
Hey I know this is off topic but I was wondering if you knew of any widgets I could add to my
blog that automatically tweet my newest twitter
updates. I’ve been looking for a plug-in like this for quite some time and was hoping maybe you would have some experience with something like this. Please let me know if you run into anything. I truly enjoy reading your blog and I look forward to your new updates.
I have no idea, sorry. Perhaps post this question on one of Andre Dao’s blogs at this site. He may know.
Hi Nadia, if you look in Widgets (under Appearance in the toolbar on the right hand side of your WordPress dashboard) you should be able to find a “Twitter” widget that does exactly that.
I was curious if you ever thought of changing the page
layout of your site? Its very well written; I love what youve got
to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so
people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two
pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?
We are pretty much at the mercy of the platform. We searched WordPress a whole ago and thought this was the best style it had to offer. May be time for another search.
Hello there! This article couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He continually kept preaching about this. I most certainly will send this information to him. Pretty sure he’ll have a very good read.
Many thanks for sharing!
All good stuff and probably reason to be critical of YouTube in the sense that they see fit to tightly police copyright laws when they’re asked to, but somehow managed to make a less rigid call on the “innocence of Muslims” video despite reasonable knowledge that this material was considered unlawful under blasphemy provisions to be broadcast in many Arab countries. I agree with neither the video nor the blasphemy laws, but I just don’t see how there is any way to determine a remedy for these kinds incidents while actors routinely apply measures that seem to respect laws somewhat selectively.
The problem as I see it being that working back from the point where people are taking matters into their own hands by turning protests into riots I think we can find a disrespect for others in those violent actions that in some misdirected fashion reflects the lack of respect shown Muslims by the makers of the film. So if YouTube are unwilling to respect their countries’ legal bars on this kind of material, or even provide fair warning, and it emerges that they effectively have no recourse to anyone when aggrieved then surely somewhere among all the human rights we know of and choose to respect they ought to have some avenue to appeal against this. At least if there was something perhaps through international law then consideration would be afforded to their concerns in a way that seems absent at the moment.
I suspect by the way that the result would be the same. My one real element of sympathy for Muslims being that they just do see to have any other way to express their concerns legitimate or otherwise.
Hello, I would like to subscribe for this weblog to obtain newest updates, thus where can
i do it please help out.
Thanks. If you scroll down the front page there’s a subscribe button on the right hand side.