Following the violence in Tibet the past several weeks, China has blocked access to YouTube and other websites showing videos of the riots. The Wall Street Journal ran a story last week about the inconsistencies in YouTube’s censorship policies in Asia and the Middle East:
In Thailand, in order to be accessible, [YouTube] agreed to block Thai users from seeing clips deemed insulting to the king in violation of Thai law. In Turkey, YouTube has suspended the account of the person who uploaded the Ataturk video, though the site remains banned there. In Myanmar, YouTube was banned after clips of protesting monks appeared on the site. In that case, YouTube declined to remove the clips and remains banned.The article states that YouTube often has to choose between “bending to censorship and losing business opportunities.” But YouTube isn’t just bending to foreign governments, and censorship is more than a business development issue.
Media analysts say YouTube's string of censorship flare-ups -- and the site's sometimes inconsistent responses -- indicate it needs to develop a more transparent strategy for dealing with these issues. YouTube's community guidelines state the site encourages "free speech and defend[s] everyone's right to express unpopular points of view." But the site also reserves the right to remove content it deems inappropriate, which gives it significant discretion when it comes to politically sensitive content.
The WSJ article leaves out mention of the Egyptian political turmoil and violence which was caught on video last fall by activist and YouTube user Wael Abbas. Abbas is the first blogger to receive the Knight International Journalism Award for his work, which led to the conviction of police for torture, but YouTube suspended his account. The nearly 100 images “including clips depicting purported police brutality, voting irregularities and anti-government demonstrations” that Abbas had uploaded were blocked, not just in Egypt but worldwide.
According to Reuters, YouTube told Abbas that the videos generated complaints about the content of torture. Human rights activists protested, including Gamal Eid, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, who argued that the intent of Abbas to expose human rights violations should have been taken into account. Abbas’ access was restored in December and the majority of his clips were allowed back online.
The WSJ article discusses a similar case in Russia:
After being alerted by users last month, YouTube removed a video clip that appeared to document abuse of prisoners at a Russian prison camp that YouTube determined violated the site's graphic-violence policy. It eventually restored the video but required viewers to click to consent to watch a clip that "may contain content that is inappropriate for some users." YouTube says its staff hadn't initially been aware that the video was meant to document alleged human-rights abuses.Where is the line between protecting viewers and censoring content of political value? Should YouTube be required to develop more consistent guidelines when it comes to political censorship, and in doing so is it YouTube's responsibility to decipher users’ motives?