World politics intrude on Silicon Valley (again). After days of violence sparked by outrage over a video trailer mocking Islam's prophet, Google and its YouTube subsidiary are caught up in a controversy in which the options boil down to bad and worse.
A brief recap: Demonstrations erupted in the Middle East this week against "Innocence of Muslims," a YouTube clip denigrating Muhammad as a buffoonish, skirt-chasing molester. The video, originally uploaded to YouTube in July, was a trailer for a movie produced by a Southern California filmmaker named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. In the violent blowback that followed, four Americans working for the State Department in Benghazi, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, lost their lives.
With the protests spiraling out of control, the White House wants. For now YouTube's response is no, citing its community standards guidelines. More about that in a moment, but this is not the first time that a U.S. tech company has found itself at the center of a political storm. Nor is it likely to be the last -- especially as the Internet extends into corners of the world with radically different cultures and political traditions.
But earlier cases centered around the sometimes awkward interaction between the technology industry and nondemocratic regimes.
You could take one side or the other, but those clashes were relatively easy to understand. The tinderbox topic of religion fuels this newest eruption. And making things that much more combustive: a centuries-long history of confrontation between Muslims and the West -- dating back to the 7th century conquest of Spain. Where's the corporate handbook on handling that one?
YouTube so far has blocked the video from being viewed in Egypt, Libya, Indonesia, and India, and has rejected the Obama administration's request to do more. After a review of the video the company has decided it does not violate YouTube's community standards guidelines governing the United States. According to YouTube:
We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what's OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video -- which is widely available on the Web -- is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, we've restricted access to it in countries where it is illegal such as India and Indonesia as well as in Libya and Egypt given the very sensitive situations in these two countries. This approach is entirely consistent with principles we first laid out in 2007.
Even the partial ban has set off alarm bells among the usual civil liberties crowd, nervous at even the slightest whiff of censorship. But YouTube's community guidelines are clear about "hate speech," and how the service will respond to valid court orders or government requests.
YouTube wrestled with a similarly thorny question during the 2009 street protests against the Iranian regime when 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan was shot and killed. Her final moments were immortalized in a gripping YouTube video. One YouTube insider recounted that while the Neda video probably violated the company's community guidelines when it came to graphic content "we decided to keep it up on the platform because it was so newsworthy and depicted news events."
Current events will influence how YouTube navigates through what is obviously terra very incognita. But a media company where 72 hours' worth of video gets uploaded every minute is no longer in control of its own content. The genie's out of the bottle as the Internet has so connected the world that there's nothing a company can do about it. Problems get unleashed faster than human eyes can find them. Eventually, YouTube gets a handle on any content deemed offensive because users complain. But by then, the damage is already done and lives are already lost.
Clarification: IBM eventually ended its operations in South Africa, creating a separate company that did not bear the IBM name.
Correction, 12:26 p.m. PT: This story misstated how many hours' worth of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. The correct figure is 72.