Should YouTube play the censor and sentinel?

The high-profile video-sharing site is embroiled in a heated debate over freedom of speech and how to handle potential criminal activity.

A day after a brutal shooting in Finland left nine people dead, a review of YouTube showed few signs that Pekka-Eric Auvinen, the alleged gunman, was ever a user.

YouTube moved swiftly to remove Auvinen's videos and profile page from the site within hours of the murders. While many believe that's a proper and respectful response to the violence, some observers wish YouTube had allowed the videos to stay on the site so users could gain a better understanding of what happened.

"Yes, many people would find those videos disturbing," said Sonja Baumer, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. But, she cautions, "how is the public going to learn what led him to do this? The public is curious and it should have the right to respond. What are we supposed to do, just forget about it until the next time it happens?"

Baumer's point is that the videos posted to YouTube by Auvinen, who went by the username Sturmgeist89, may offer clues as to why he allegedly gunned down six of his classmates, the school nurse, and its headmistress.

"YouTube is not just a company but also a community of users. And they should be allowed to negotiate criteria for censorship."
--Sonja Baumer, UC Berkeley

Baumer was studying political participation by young people on YouTube prior to the shootings. While studying groups that were proponents of anti-immigration, she stumbled upon on some radical right-wing YouTube users with loose connections to Auvinen.

Hours before the shooting, authorities say Auvinen posted a video to YouTube that revealed his plans. Some of the other 88 clips he uploaded shed light on what Finnish police called Auvinen's "radical beliefs." A YouTube spokeswoman declined to comment.

In fairness, YouTube is in a no-win situation. Leave the videos up, and the company is accused of insensitivity. Take them down, and it's accused of censorship, regardless of the unpleasant nature of the material.

The world's most popular video-sharing site now finds itself in the middle of a very heated debate over issues of free speech, censorship, and whether the site is responsible for spotting criminals. Noel McNamara, president of the Crime Victims Support Association, was quoted Thursday in The Age, an Australian publication, saying he believes YouTube should filter for criminal or potentially criminal material.

This, according to John Palfrey, executive director of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, is too much to ask for any community site.

"The squeeze is definitely on YouTube," Palfrey said. "But it's nearly impossible to filter information as it goes online--whether you're filtering for copyright violations or hate speech. The only hope (YouTube) has, once they are notified by technology or human beings, is to take a look at something and then to take it down. I think you can require them to act responsibly after they know something is on the site."

Internet video allows anyone to broadcast to millions, but there isn't any regulatory body to supervise. According to Palfrey, YouTube must judge what is acceptable content, and is therefore thrust into the role of being the site's Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

"TV is now on the Web, and it conveys the same sort of power and impact," Palfrey said. "Yet there is no FCC or someone saying you can't show that. YouTube finds itself in the same position as a government regulator. It must make judgment calls in the same way the FCC draws the line for broadcast media."

According to reports, some of Auvinen's videos espoused violent, white supremacist, and neo-Nazi ideas. Many people are asking why this material was allowed on YouTube. Auvinen owned a previous YouTube account under the username NaturalSelector89, but was booted from the site for violating its user agreement, according to reports. He simply created a new account under the name Sturmgeist89, which means "storm spirit" in German.

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