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On Wednesday, YouTube announced that it had blocked access to a video showing clips from “The Innocence of the Muslims,” an anti-Islamic film that depicts prophet Mohammed as a philanderer who approves of child abuse, after the film sparked violent protests in Libya and Egypt. It was an extremely unusual move for Google-owned YouTube, which normally adheres to Google’s policy of only censoring content if it violates their Terms of Service or in response to a valid court order.
As Google admitted Friday, despite deciding to block the video in the Middle East, the controversial video was still “clearly within [its] guidelines.” While their goal of trying to tamp down violence may have been sincere, the decision was misguided and opens the door for more censorship in the future.
Thanks to its pro-free speech policy, YouTube and other Google products have become vital platforms for free expression all over the world. When a YouTube user uploads her movie, she can expect that so long as it does not violate the Terms of Service or the law, it will stay up. Because Google has chosen not to mediate content, there is room for all kinds of speech on YouTube — for unpopular speech, for voices of dissent, for speaking truth to power, for ugly and disturbing speech, and for cute cat videos. When Google turns its back on those policies, however temporarily, it is up to civil society to take notice and hold them accountable.