February 27, 2008

YouTube and Global Censorship: A Proposal

Greetings. The recent incident of Pakistan's blocking of YouTube over a video that Pakistan considered to be "blasphemous" once again brings into focus some key Internet issues. In this case, apparently due to routing miscalculations and error, Pakistan's attempts to block YouTube from their own population disrupted YouTube access around the world. This problem was gradually repaired (though still points to serious infrastructural issues). But Pakistan still succeeded in killing that video on YouTube globally, reportedly by demanding that Google pull it down under the vague terms of YouTube's usage guidelines.

It's time to loudly question the appropriateness of letting any group succeed in censoring material globally on a site like YouTube, simply because, essentially, that group just doesn't like the material involved.

Obviously if we're going to operate on the basis that everything that offends groups in any part of the world will be deleted globally from YouTube (or wherever), we could end up with a lowest common denominator of content where an old episode of Leave It to Beaver would be banned. As various groups see such successful take-downs, they will only become emboldened to make more demands.

The primary issue for Google and other players in this space isn't international legal action, but international business and access. This is both understandable and explicit -- Google has been very clear that access considerations have driven its participation in the Chinese censorship system, apparently (judging from public statements) against their founder's own best instincts.

I don't necessarily condemn such actions out of hand. There is a valid argument to be made that having access -- even censored access -- brings significant longer-term benefits to these populations. But let's at least be direct about what's going on and what trade-offs are involved.

The Chinese case is very different from what we're talking about in terms of the Pakistan video take-down. The censored version of Google offered to the Chinese is not also forced upon the rest of the world as the only Google choice. The removal of a video from YouTube globally does force that choice on everyone, everywhere. That other copies are of course available from other sites isn't the matter of concern here, the question is the appropriateness of the action in the first place.

In Search Engine Dispute Notifications: Request For Comments I proposed a framework for the carefully controlled and managed insertions of "dispute notifications" on search results to help deal with such controversies on Google's main search engine.

I now propose that a similar concept could be applied to services such as YouTube, as a preferred alternative to global video take-downs. That is, instead of being able to easily demand that a video be expunged from YouTube (for other than DMCA-related reasons), a procedure would be in place to tag the associated video in a manner that would display the noted objections to that material, and could even be used by national authorities to impose regional or local blocking (distasteful as this is) without affecting the rest of the planet's rights to view the video in question if they wish.

Actual global take-downs would be much more limited, e.g. to clear-cut DMCA and universally egregious materials such as child abuse-related videos and the like, which are far less likely to create value judgment dilemmas for the services involved.

I am increasingly convinced that the careful and controlled tagging of videos, search results, etc. in such manners could be a useful compromise between "no action" and "global censorship" -- and while I understand that such tagging systems would be non-trivial to implement and manage, they seem on their face to be far more desirable and fair than any obvious alternatives.


Posted by Lauren at February 27, 2008 09:13 AM | Permalink
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