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YouTube Unblocks Incendiary Video—But Temporary Censorship Is Still Censorship

Google, the owner of YouTube, didn’t want to censor the anti-Islamic video that has led to riots and the slaying of four U.S. diplomats in Libya. When the U.S. government asked the company to reconsider hosting the video at all in mid-September, Google declined, saying it didn’t break YouTube’s community guidelines. Only as violence continued in the Middle East did the company reluctantly agree to block the video in Egypt and Libya, figuring lives were at stake.

Well, with no fanfare, a couple days ago Google turned the video back on. “We only restricted access to it in Libya and Egypt on a temporary basis due to the very difficult circumstances there,” a YouTube spokeswoman confirms. “Now that the situation is calmer, we’ve reinstated the versions that had been restricted.”

It may be true that Google always planned for the blockage to be temporary. But Rebecca MacKinnon, a journalist and activist who first discovered that the video had become visible again, thinks it also has to do with the chorus of criticism it faced from human rights and free speech groups for taking the unusual step of voluntarily censoring its own content without being forced to do so by local laws (which is why the video was blocked in in India and Indonesia). By judging situations on a case-by-case basis, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York worries, Google will then have to justify its decisions to all sorts of parties. 

I’d much rather see Google stick to one blanket policy, subject only to the variations in country-specific laws, instead of making judgment calls based on difficult-to-interpret circumstances on the ground. Because even if Google does treat all exceptions as temporary, canceling blockages as soon as circumstances return to normal, the initial decision to censor is still what matters. Once Google gives in to the heckler’s veto, there’s no telling what people—and governments—will do to influence the company’s decisions in the future.