Several weeks ago, I spoke with GWU law professor Jeffrey Rosen about my curious experiences with YouTube’s mystery censors. Longtime readers will remember the battle over “First, They Came.” For the past two years, my attempts to re-upload the little video about the Mohammed Cartoons and violent jihad were blocked. Other users were able to upload it, but it was blocked from my personal channel. Lo and behold, after Rosen inquired about it, the video is now available again.
As of Nov. 30, 2008, it has magically reappeared on my channel, with the option “Embedding disabled by request” — which, um, I did not choose.
Curiouser and curiouser. Wonders never cease!
Here’s the relevant part of Rosen’s piece on Google’s gatekeepers in the NYT, but make sure to click through and read Rosen’s entire piece for a penetrating look at GooTube’s inner chamber of content censors and their global impact:
Last May, Senator Joseph Lieberman’s staff contacted Google and demanded that the company remove from YouTube dozens of what he described as jihadist videos. (Around the same time, Google was under pressure from “Operation YouTube Smackdown,” a grass-roots Web campaign by conservative bloggers and advocates to flag videos and ask YouTube to remove them.) After viewing the videos one by one, Wong and her colleagues removed some of the videos but refused to remove those that they decided didn’t violate YouTube guidelines. Lieberman wasn’t satisfied. In an angry follow-up letter to Eric Schmidt, the C.E.O. of Google, Lieberman demanded that all content he characterized as being “produced by Islamist terrorist organizations” be immediately removed from YouTube as a matter of corporate judgment — even videos that didn’t feature hate speech or violent content or violate U.S. law. Wong and her colleagues responded by saying, “YouTube encourages free speech and defends everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view.” In September, Google and YouTube announced new guidelines prohibiting videos “intended to incite violence.”
In addition to Lieberman, another outspoken critic of supposed liberal bias at YouTube and Google is Michelle Malkin, the conservative columnist and blogger. Malkin became something of a cause célèbre among YouTube critics in 2006, when she created a two-minute movie called “First, They Came” in the wake of the violent response to the Danish anti-Muhammad cartoons. After showing pictures of the victims of jihadist violence (like the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh) and signs declaring “Behead Those Who Insult Islam,” the video asks, “Who’s next?” and displays the dates of terrorist attacks in America, London, Madrid and Bali.
Nearly seven months after she posted the video, Malkin told me she was “flabbergasted” to receive an e-mail message from YouTube saying the video had been removed for its “inappropriate content.” When Malkin asked why the video was removed, she received no response, and when she posted a video appealing to YouTube to reinstate it, that video, too, was deleted with what she calls the “false claim” that it had been removed at her request. Malkin remains dissatisfied with YouTube’s response. “I’m completely flummoxed about what their standards are,” she said. “The standards need to be clear, they need to be consistent and they need to be more responsive.”
I watched the “First, They Came” video, which struck me as powerful political commentary that contains neither hate speech nor graphic violence, and I asked why it was taken down. According to a YouTube spokesman, the takedown was a routine one that hadn’t been reviewed by higher-ups. The spokesman said he couldn’t comment on particular cases, but he forwarded a link to Malkin’s current YouTube channel, noting that it contains 55 anti-jihadist videos similar to “First, They Came,” none of which have been taken down. (“First, They Came” can now be found on Malkin’s YouTube channel, too.)
The removal of Malkin’s video may have been an innocent mistake. But it serves as a reminder that one person’s principled political protest is another person’s hate speech, and distinguishing between the two in hard cases is a lot to ask of a low-level YouTube reviewer. In addition, the publicity that attended the removal of Malkin’s video only underscores the fact that in the vast majority of cases in which material is taken down, the decision to do so is never explained or contested. The video goes down, and that’s the end of it.
Here’s the screenshot as of 11/30/08 12am:
This one is also blocked with the same false label.
On a related GooTube note, the court case of proud mom Stephanie Lenz, who has been threatened by rock star Prince and Universal Music Group for posting a short clip of her baby bopping up and down to Let’s Go Crazy” in her kitchen, is proceeding. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (which helped me successfully fight off another baseless UMG takedown attempt over my Akon video report) took up Lenz’s cause. All the latest is here.
Flashback: YouTube’s slippery slope
Flashback: Google bows to China