Should Google govern global free speech?

google government

The theme of my blog is Marketing, Social Media, Humanity.  I can think of no more human issue than freedom, free speech, and security and all of these issues are coming to a head right now.

There are many emotional, political and theological issues embroiled in the tragic occurrences of the past week where an Anti-Islam film on You Tube was used as an ignition switch for bloody protests and death in the Middle East.

Google, the owner of YouTube said on Friday that it would not comply with a White House request to remove the video that has set off the violence in the Arab world.

Google said the video did not violate its own rules on hate speech, because it was “against the Muslim religion but not Muslim people.” It did block the video in India and Indonesia because it violated local laws, and in Egypt and Libya because of the “delicacy of the situation.”

Here are some issues I find absolutely fascinating:

  • A single U.S. public company built on Internet advertising is governing global free speech.
  • In THEORY, our taxes pay for our government to keep us safe and create a foreign policy that sustains our freedom. The government foreign policy experts for this region wanted the video to go down but Google said no, except in the cases their own company executives deemed as “delicate.”  So essentially a company that exists to continuously increase its stock price is, in this example, determining U.S. foreign policy.
  • The internal Google policy on censorship is built on the consideration of “cultural norms.”  So Google is also interpreting the cultural norms of the world to determine what is fit and appropriate for public consumption.
  • Google said in a New Times article that it does not police videos uploaded to the site because of the sheer volume — 72 hours of videos are uploaded each minute. In this specific example, the controversial video had actually been uploaded to YouTube in June.

I like Google’s products but I don’t necessarily trust the company any more than I would trust a government. Time after time, Google has been aggressive — and even unethical and illegal — in its pursuit of personal data that will help sell ads.

I don’t have any answers. I’m not sure I even have the right questions at this point. But I do know that I am uneasy having a single company wield so much power and determine what is “free speech” on a global basis. What have we gotten ourselves into?

Image courtesy of Funny Potato

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  • Hi Mark,

    I’m going to have to quibble with you a little bit (and I don’t think it’s just semantics): I don’t believe Google is “governing” free speech; they’re a U.S.-based company taking an absolutist interpretation of the 1st amendment in deciding the content on their site. That same 1st amendment is the reason the U.S. government can request but can’t force Google to pull the video.

    I’m a first amendment absolutist, because it protects my right to speak as much as it protects this stuff–and it’s a slippery slope when we try to moderate that. And that’s the dilemma that Google finds itself in here in the U.S.

    Having said that, the fact that Google has different rules for different nations means they’re already using their wiggle room when it’s expedient for them to do so. I don’t think very many people (or anyone I care about) would have a problem if this particular video disappeared–but is that the right response?

    I don’t have the answers either, and as the daughter of a career diplomat I’m very sensitive to the cause-and-effect from this hate speech. But U.S. policy isn’t being dictated by Google’s decision any more than the video is responsible for everything that’s happened. It’s a trigger; but it’s a trigger for a whole bunch of stuff–and that’s a far bigger conversation.

    Good food for thought. Free speech was a lot easier topic to tackle, wasn’t it, when the only people who could hear you were the ones standing in the same room?

  • Tara Geissinger

    “I don’t have any answers. I’m not sure I even have the right questions
    at this point. But I do know that I am uneasy having a single company
    wield so much power and determine what is “free speech” on a global
    basis” — I agree 100% with this statement. I am definitely sitting beside you, uneasy. I think anytime you have a platform that allows people to upload and publish their own material, you are going to be treading in some uncomfortable waters.

    As the owner of a website that allows users to publish their own content, I tend to lean towards Google in how they are handling the situation. The video met their guidelines. Whether or not the person who uploaded the video should take it down is another matter, but Google did not produce the video.

    I am also a huge advocate of free speech. While it does lead to situations like this, it still needs to be protected.

    With our website, we do have it in our terms that we reserve the right to refuse content for any reason. However, if there is proper attribution (meaning the reader can clearly tell WHO is making the statement) we tend to publish in most cases.

  • I appreciate the quibble but I don’t really think we’re that far apart in our thinking or our concerns. If Google is dictating who sees what, I think in one respect they are governing not only free speech but its definition. And you’re right. It is so complicated! Thanks for the very thought-provoking comment!

  • Hey Mark, two things…

    1) If you haven’t read it, a good book for this type of topic is “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser.

    2) Someone has to govern “free speech”… so would you rather have it be the government in this case, or the company itself standing up for its right to publish this content (Google)?

    If the government was allowed to have the video taken down, wouldn’t that be wrong? Wouldn’t that have been a violation of free speech?

    I personally don’t like either answer, but in this particular case, I think I side with Google because of the larger implications (actually not 100% sure on that).

  • Adam Green

    “So essentially a company that exists to continuously increase its stock price is, in this example, determining U.S. foreign policy.”

    Sounds like business as usual in Washington to me.

  • There’s a lot of thought food here. And I’m not sure if I can express myself clearly as the issues of international privacy and censorship laws are well beyond my expertise. So I’ll give you knee jerk reaction.
    First, I have to agree wit Daria’s “quibble” and say the Google isn’t governing or determining global free speech. It’s an international company that is upholding its internal policies on censorship.

    The US is a country who doesn’t regulate banks (with disastrous international consequences), or corporations who sit on billions in assets when millions are sitting in shelters. Both of these sectors have far reaching consequences.

    The incidents in the Mid East are the results of Islamic ideologues and terrorists who used this video as a match to light a kinderbox that has been marinating in gasoline for a long time before this video was translated into Arabic and distributed.

    Determining cultural norms is very difficult, ask the Supreme Court. Ultimately, if the US thinks this kind of video is offensive (can anyone argue that it’s not?) then there are special laws that can be applied. If I’m prohibited from carrying a 200ml of toothpaste on an airplane under the DHS, then surely an insightful video that plays into extremists hands and threatens (& causes) death and destruction of American personnel and property abroad should be prohibited.
    In short, I don’t think it’s Google’s place to determine “free speech”, but the government. Then again, I’m a lefty Canadian who believes there’s a role for government to to protect the interests of it’s citizens.

  • 1) I haven’t read the book, but I did see the TED talk. 2) I can’t even think about this. It makes my head hurt.

    Re government taking it down — let’s assume the government is right. Let’s say they had intelligence that Google did not have (likely) and that many citizens would be in imminent danger if this video did not go down. So Google overrules the government and hundreds of people die just because some idiot posted a distasteful, low-budget piece of crap on You Tube.

    I know this is a slippery slope, but if youre family member was killed because Google did not heed a security warning, wouldn’t this color your view?

    Very difficult issues!!

  • Ouch : )

  • Lots of good points here Ray. Layers and layers of complexity. Thanks very much for this stream of thoughts!

  • It is a slippery slope indeed Mark.

    But Google is exercising it’s rights… so, as hard as it is to say, if we take those rights away… what are the longer term implications?

    That being said… Google has an opportunity here to evaluate and adjust its policies for sure… and should do that.

    As for the “if my family was killed scenario”… yeah, my view would be colored, and it’s tragic that people died as a result of this.

    You’ve brought up an almost impossible scenario to say anyone is right or wrong… but I think we need to quit looking at this from a “right or wrong” angle, and instead look at it differently… because there are so many implications here, it’s mind-boggling (makes my head hurt too).

  • Can you regulate hate? Can anyone govern intolerance? As abhorrent as the video in question is, will denying the existence of the underlying darkness bring any more light to the world? And will stifling speech (particularly for those of us whose scripture teaches that words can incarnate, can bring things to life) help create any solutions? I have to side with Google’s right to censor itself or not, even as I, too, shudder at the impact of an organization (a society?) that seemingly holds the increase of shareholder value to be its highest value.

  • In a way, Google is exercising its rights. But it also showed itself to be inconsistent and driven by their own whims. I’m not saying they didn’t do the right thing, but the fact is, they are dictating the terms of speech, both within and outside of their policies. And let’s not lose sight of that they are trying to make money at the end of the day. Crazy things to think about it!

  • You’re right, the profit motive certainly plays a part in this… but really, how much so when one video such as this one probably didn’t make a huge (if any) dent in Google’s profits?

  • Is the problem the content (no matter how bad or opinionated it may be) or the consumer who interprets and reacts to it? Material is often offensive to (or at least disagreed by) someone, somewhere, sometime. But, how we react says a lot about who we are as a global society. No amount of censorship will solve that.
    In this case, Google was just the “messenger”.
    Although some may not agree with what this video is saying, some others potentially do and may not find this offensive at all. Therefore, why shoud their “rights” be censored?
    Again, the reaction to this (on all fronts and perspectives, including this blog) are very telling.
    Very well put, Mark! It’s nice to see someone had the moxie to call it out!

  • My thoughts exactly Mark. As someone who comes from a family with a military tradition and has relatives living in the Middle East, I’m concerned about the implications others, not at Google or YouTube, have to deal with. It isn’t just as though people are upset about the video and voicing opposition. There are actual riots and attacks on embassies and people are dying. Very scary.

    I understand Google is exercising their rights, but at what cost? Google should do the right thing and consider the global impact of leaving this video up.

  • Our precious First Amendment is more endangered every day, as left, right and middle seek to dictate what is and is not acceptable speech. We have a government official asking YouTube to take down a video, questioning someone who put up a distasteful video, and visiting a U.S. Citizen to pressure him to shut up. I am also an absolutist on the First Amendment.

    On this Constitution Day, how long will freedom of speech survive?

  • I would argue that Google’s decision not to remove the video is more likely to cause angst than to bring it good fortune. So I think this perhaps isn’t the example that fits the “shareholder value at all costs” model.

  • Gettysburg Gerry

    Hi Mark,
    While I completely agree with you, I would have say two things. 1) While I don’t necessarily trust Google, I definitely trust my government much less. If forced to choose who the keeper of the data would be, I would pick Google every time. 2) the reality of the situation is that Google is the proverbial 800lb Gorilla in the room. You may not like it, but you aren’t going to budge it either, and 3) okay I lied….I think we are just now coming to the top of the roller coaster and technology along with social media is going to become a very wild ride, very soon. I am convinced more every day that we are in our technology/social media infancy. Much more is on the way at an incredible speed. Hold On…..

  • Great post, Mark.

    This issue lays bare the ideological (and often irreconcilable) tension between rival worldviews. I’m reminded of the ideas put forth by Benjamin Barber two decades ago in his Atlantic article ( that gave rise to his book, Jihad vs. McWorld, which presaged challenges to the modern idea of “one McWorld tied together by technology, ecology, communications, and commerce.”

    Flashpoints like this can’t be entirely forseen, and just like the “random” event that set off WWI (the assassination of seemingly inconsequential archduke in the Balkins), we are clearly in uncharted waters where the Internet and social
    media can unintentionally ignite global firestorms and put notions like “freedom of speech” vs. government authority to the test.

    We live in interesting times.

    Steven Van Yoder
    Author, Get Slightly Famous

  • Thanks for your passionate comment Brad. Curious, as an absolutist would you support any kind of published content. even if it put many lives in danger?

  • Very important perspective Don, thanks for sharing!

  • Powerful perspective Chuck. Thanks very much for adding to the dialogue.

  • Inflammatory content — I guess we’ll know it when we see it : ) So much depends on context and politics, I mean when I see content that inflames me, I don overturn trucks and bring out my gun. Thanks Steve.

  • So agree with your last point but I don’t know about trusting Google. Click the links I have in the article. They are not following their company creed of “don’t be evil.” They have knowingly broken privacy laws and engaged in coverups.Let’s not lose sight that Google’s goal is to make more money every quarter, without exception, forever.

  • An exceedingly interesting comment Steven. Thanks for connecting the dots like that.

  • In this case, I think public image will override profit but we need to stay focused on what Google is and why they exist. Google is not a charity or some benevolent global do-gooder. They operate under the same financial pressures as BP and and Exxon. They are fallible human beings trying to make a profit, not elected by us, not accountable to anybody but stockholders and their board of directors in the end. Again, I like Google but I am realistic about what it is like to work in a huge global company too.

  • Dimitris Ioannidis

    Very ”irritating”post.
    I think we face , for another time, the classic dilemma of dealing with 100% freedom in sharing and allow everything on the Web or Social Media.
    i agree almost completly with you : I /we dont have any absolute answers…

    But on the other side, we all live now a very sensitive(in geopolitical and social terms )period, so maybe we have to think simple and clear, and that means to secure the world peace, generally….by stopping this film share.

    By the way, did someone thought that maybe this film/video is a triggering one for creating all this atmosphere, and then ”someone” has the cause to……do something bigger, for example invasion somewhere….!

  • Agree … at this point.

  • I tend to agree with you. As much as we all must value free speech, it is going to kill some one and infringe on the rights of others, it makes me pause. Thanks Dmitirs.

  • “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – I’m of the belief that Google should not have censored the video in the least nor should the US government have asked to remove the video. There are already laws that restrict what is allowed to go up – this video has not violated any of them (in the US). (Now the legal battle over some of the actors claiming various civil issues may have the ability to get the video taken down but that’s for a court of law to determine.)

    Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.

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