A Slippery Slope of Censorship at YouTube
LAST week, as YouTube continued its recent campaign to spit-shine its image and, perhaps, to look a little less ragtag to potential buyers (including Google, which was said to be eyeing the upstart in the $1.6 billion range), the company took a scrub bucket to some questionable political graffiti on its servers, including a video entry from the doyenne of right-wing blogs, Michelle Malkin (michellemalkin.com).
But the incident raised some questions about the fine line YouTube’s administrators walk when they decide to respond to users’ complaints about contributions to the site — a mechanism that is fraught with the potential for vindictive shenanigans.
Ms. Malkin’s video, titled “First They Came,” had resided on YouTube for some time, and is essentially a crude slideshow paean to people — authors, politicians, filmmakers — who had been made targets, she implies, by intolerant Islamic fascists. (A Windows Media file version of the video can be downloaded at michellemalkin.com/archives/004456.htm).
•Salman Rushdie, the author who has lived under a fatwa, an official Islamic death sentence, since 1989 for insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a novel, is the first example cited. Fair enough. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri, apparently for insults to Islam and other affronts, is also shown, as are several of the editorial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that set off wild protests across the Islamic world in late January and February.
Included, as well, is Pim Fortuyn, the openly gay, anti-immigration politician from the Netherlands who was assassinated in 2002 by Volkert van der Graaf — although linking this to some jihadist plot is tendentious at best.
The video also contains some graphic images — file clips of Mr. Fortuyn’s and Mr. van Gogh’s newly dead bodies laid out on the streets, for instance.
Does that mean it should be banned?
After all, violence abounds on YouTube — from actual film of Iraqi snipers taking out American soldiers (that video was removed earlier last week, although an article in this newspaper on Friday suggested that others are out there), to dozens of ordinary and quite depressing fistfights from across the globe (just search for the tag “fight”).
Many, but not all, newspapers were frightened away from publication of the Muhammad cartoons. But the cartoons, and other images of Muhammad, can be found all over the Internet, as individual users decide for themselves whether or not they will abide by the Islamic restrictions on Muhammad imagery. Hosts of such images include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which, among other images, has one of the prophet atop a camel, in a leaf of “Majmac al-tawarikh,” or the Compendium of Histories, at snipurl.com/mb3j.
This is not to suggest that Ms. Malkin’s video would not be particularly offensive to some people. There is little that Ms. Malkin says or does that is not. But it is hard to imagine what YouTube hopes to gain by punting such content, or what sort of uphill rhetorical battle it is setting itself up for when it does so.
As noted by my colleague, Virginia Heffernan, in her Screens blog (screens.blogs.nytimes.com) last week, it was only a matter of hours before Ms. Malkin’s political followers mounted a countercampaign to have videos they found offensive — anti-Israeli videos, for instance, or jihadist screeds — similarly flagged and yanked.
But outside of that debate, what of other materials? It takes just minutes to find a video claiming that the Bible is “repulsive” and therefore “has no place in our society.” Another depicts a campy Jesus stripping to a loincloth and lip-synching Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” through crowded city streets, only to be abruptly struck by a speeding bus.
Will these be taken down?
Jeffrey Rutenbeck, the dean of the Communication and Creative Media Division at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., suggested that such moves almost always backfire. “Attempts to censor in public ways almost always raises awareness of an issue,” he said. “And this provides a great conversational landscape.”
But Professor Rutenbeck also recalled some earlier, Usenet-based communities that, to ensure that no individual members were upset by anything, began censoring speech so vigilantly that the communities themselves began to wither. Conversation, it turned out, even heated conversation, was their lifeblood.
“A lot of communities in Usenet just died a slow and agonizing death,” Professor Rutenbeck said, “because they became so intolerant of anything that could offend anyone in the group. It’s hard to imagine this not becoming a bigger and bigger challenge for YouTube.”
On Friday, as users across the political spectrum went to war at YouTube, flagging each others’ videos as inappropriate, Ms. Malkin posted a video taunt to the administrators of the site: “I still haven’t heard from you about why you yanked my harmless, nonviolent, nonprofane, nonhateful, nonthreatening little video,” Ms. Malkin said, “which criticized harmful, violent, profane, hateful, threatening, Islamic terrorism.”
In an e-mailed statement to me, YouTube suggested that Ms. Malkin’s video and others recently removed, including one that implied, in as bold and outrageous a tone as possible, that images of Lebanese citizens suffering the recent Israeli bombings were staged, violated the company’s terms of service.
•“Our customer support team reviews all flagged videos before removing them,” the statement said. “Videos are not automatically removed.” The statement specifically referred to the part of the YouTube user agreement that forbids users from submitting material that is “unlawful, obscene, defamatory, libelous, threatening, pornographic, harassing, hateful, racially or ethnically offensive, or encourages conduct that would be considered a criminal offense, give rise to civil liability, violate any law, or is otherwise inappropriate.”
To be fair, YouTube has to retain the right to boot content to maintain legal control of its servers. Otherwise, chaos would reign.
But as GaijinBiker, an American blogger living in Tokyo (ridingsun.com) — and a fan of Ms. Malkin — noted on Thursday, erasing opposing opinions is nothing to celebrate.
“This is not a positive development,” he said on the removal of some anti-Israeli videos from YouTube. “I want these videos to be widely available, so people can see just how deranged and hate-filled Israel’s opponents can be. A tit-for-tat censorship battle only leaves all of us less informed.”
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