Collaborating on Controversial Content and Difficult Decisions

Date: 
Tuesday, September 25, 2012 - 13:01

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) condemns the recent violence associated with protests around the world against an inflammatory film insulting to Islam. GNI’s Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy aim to guide responsible decisions by companies when facing requests or demands from governments. But private companies also make decisions about removing content based on their own policies or, in the case of Google’s decision to restrict access to a YouTube video in Libya and Egypt, based on the judgment of company executives when confronted with circumstances involving direct threats to human life. 

When a GNI member company is faced with a situation that sparks global debate about the responsibility of companies in crisis situations, a robust internal discussion ensues. There is a thorough and frank exchange of views among all participants about potential implications for free expression as well as possible lessons to be learned. An important lesson learned since the 2008 launch of GNI, however, is that that many situations lack easy answers and there is no “one size fits all” approach to corporate responsibility.

When facing difficult decisions about online speech, companies in the information and communications technologies (ICT) industry can benefit from GNI’s collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach to problem solving and collective learning on fast moving issues. GNI provides a confidential forum where companies, human rights organizations, investors, and academic researchers can exchange ideas and learn from each other. Individually and collectively, our participants engage governments to advance freedom of expression and privacy worldwide. 

Below are statements and commentary by GNI members on the recent violence and YouTube video restrictions. GNI does not endorse these statements, but are provided here to reflect the diverse multi-stakeholder dialogue that we support. 
 

What Anti-Islam Film Says About Free Speech and The 'Heckler's Veto'
Kevin Bankston, the director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, says it's hard to second-guess Google's decision "considering the actual violence that's occurred and the risk of more violence in Egypt and Libya."

YouTube's Censorship of Anti-Islam Video Raises Numerous Questions Around Online Free Expression 
The fact that the video seems to have been made for the sole purpose of angering Muslims has caused some to ask if it would pass the free speech test in the United States, while others have defended the video as protected speech.

U.S. Government Must Combat Hatred Without Restricting Speech
While Human Rights First praises the U.S. government’s statements that condemn the hateful nature of the video as well as the violence it sparked, it cautions that the government must hold firm to the principle that restricting speech is not the answer to hateful or defamatory statements.

Ni Los Poderosos Pueden con YouTube
Eduardo Bertoni, director del Centro de Estudios en Libertad de Expresión y Acceso a la Información de la Universidad de Palermo, Argentina, le recuerda a BBC Mundo que "tanto en el mundo 'offline' como en el 'online' las personas deben gozar de los mismos derechos humanos, en particular la libertad de expresión".

[Eduardo Bertoni, Director of the Center for the Study of Free Expression and Access to Information at the University of Palermo, Argentina, reminds BBC World that “just as in the ‘offline’ world, individuals online should be afforded the same human rights protections, in particular that of freedom of expression.”]

A New Argument for Censorship?
We may now witness the emergence of a new argument for censorship: the traditional hate speech “incitement test” — that there must be a clear link between “words and deeds” — may come under re-examination. Is there a difference between comment published with the intent to incite violence and comment published with the intentional expectation that violence will result?

Our Approach to Free Expression and Controversial Content
At Google, we have a bias in favor of free expression—not just because it’s a key tenet of free societies, but also because more information generally means more choice, more power, more economic opportunity and more freedom for people. 

The Structural Weakness of Internet Speech
It is hard to look at the international protests surrounding the Innocence of Muslims video and the contemporaneous (though seemingly unrelated) fatal attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya and not feel as though we are witnessing an important moment in the Internet's development.