Egyptian human rights activist Wael Abbas found his account deactivated in 2007 after posting violent content depicting police brutality in his country. Eventually, his account was restored and YouTube shifted its policies in response to his and other users’ complaints, allowing content containing violence to be posted under an exception for videos that are “educational” or “documentary” in nature. This policy later enabled activists in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere to post documentation of regime violence.
In the current case, YouTube has stated that the video does not violate its terms of service. So if the video does not violate the company’s rules and YouTube didn’t receive an order from the two countries’ governments (as far as we know), then the only explanation is that YouTube is determining on its own what serves the best interest of Libyans and Egyptians. This is, indeed, a rare move from the company and may eventually backfire…
Google should take the lead from Twitter, a smaller and younger company that, when faced with similar concerns, has stood strong, issuing a policy stating that content would be “withheld” in a certain country only in the face of a valid legal order and that the ban would be communicated transparently to all users.
Instead, by 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.