State of the Web: Online speech is only as free as Google wants it to be

Google free speech

By now, you’ve surely heard about the pathetic, anti-Islam video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which reportedly lead to the death of a U.S. ambassador and three members of his staff last Wednesday, and has since sparked violent protests throughout much of the Muslim world. The situation is a ghastly catastrophe on all fronts, sparked by the most disastrous viral video in the Web’s short history.

While the “Innocence” fiasco unearths a slew of human and political problems, the issues of censorship and free speech in an age of global connectivity may be the most pressing for the average Web user. In today’s hyper-connected world where barriers between countries seem more permeable than ever, Google increasingly plays gatekeeper to what you should and shouldn’t see.

YouTube censorship

Soon after the attack in Libya, YouTube made the 14-minute video “temporarily unavailable” to users in Egypt and Libya. (The governments of both Afghanistan and, as of Monday, Pakistan have blocked access to YouTube altogether). YouTube later blocked the video in India and Indonesia, on grounds that it violates those countries’ laws.

These instances of censorship were followed by a request from the White House for Google (YouTube’s parent company) to review the video, just to make sure it didn’t violate the site’s terms of service — presumably as a last-ditch attempt to have the video pulled from YouTube entirely, no matter the country. 

Despite YouTube Community Guidelines‘ prohibition of any video that includes “speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/gender identity,” Google said no. “The Innocence of Muslims” remains online. Riots continue to spread.

Blow back

Civil liberty advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have condemned Google’s decision to censor “The Innocence of Muslims” — a despicable attempt at filmmaking that depicts the the Prophet Mohammed as a philanderer, a hypocrite, a sham, and a supporter of child abuse — even in a limited capacity.

“At a time when Google should have stuck by its own policies and commitment to freedom of expression, the company caved — and the potential for far-reaching consequences remains to be seen,” wrote Eva Galperin, International Freedom of Expression Coordinator for the EFF, in a recent op-ed for TechCrunch.

It is easy to agree with Galperin on the principle of free speech — a sacred right for Americans that lies at the heart of the knotty complications surrounding “The Innocence of Muslims.” It is also easy to understand why Google would risk blocking the video in parts of the world where reaction has resulted in violence and mayhem — regions where free speech has a different definition than it does in the U.S. Google is, after all, a private company, and therefore can pick and choose which speech it wants to make available — a power the U.S. government has in a very limited capacity, thanks to the First Amendment.

Don’t be evil, please?!

It is Google’s power that should give us pause. Through the popularity and near-ubiquity of its search in the Western world, Google has become a gatekeeper of the Internet. Speech available online (the only kind of speech that matters much these days) can suffocate under an impossible avalanche of better-ranked search results. Conversely, a ridiculous video that appears on YouTube can cause an international incident that threatens the national security of multiple nations. We are all at Google’s mercy, for better or worse.

Google’s power to expand or restrict the reach of certain speech makes criticisms like Galperin’s of the utmost importance for our increasingly connected world. While slippery slope arguments may be easy to dismiss — especially when people’s lives are on the line at this very moment — we ignore potential consequences at our peril.

[Image courtesy of Stefan Redel/Shutterstock]


Battle royale-style Tetris 99 is the first Nintendo Switch Online-exclusive game

If you want to play online multiplayer on Switch, you'll need a Nintendo Switch Online subscription. Here's what you need to know about Nintendo Switch Online, from price to features to the awesome library of NES games.

Confused about RSS? Don't be. Here's what it is and how to use it

What is an RSS feed, anyway? This traditional method of following online news is still plenty useful. Let's take a look at what RSS means, and what advantages it has in today's busy world.

Here’s how to set up a virtual private network (VPN) on your Xbox One

Online privacy is more important now than it's ever been, and gaming is happening online more than ever before. Here's a quick guide on how to set up a VPN for your Xbox One so you game in safe anonymity.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix, from 'Haunting of Hill House’ to ‘Norsemen’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.

Reluctant to give your email address away? Here's how to make a disposable one

Want to sign up for a service without the risk of flooding your inbox with copious amounts of spam and unwanted email? You might want to consider using disposable email addresses via one of these handy services.

Chrome is a fantastic browser, but is is still the best among new competitors?

Choosing a web browser for surfing the web can be tough with all the great options available. Here we pit the latest versions of Chrome, Opera, Firefox, Edge, and Vivaldi against one another to find the best browsers for most users.

Microsoft extension adds Google Chrome support for Windows Timeline

The Windows Timeline feature is now much more versatile thanks to the added support for Google's Chrome browser. All you need to do to increase its functionality is to download the official Chrome extension.
Movies & TV

Here’s how to watch the 2019 Oscars livestream online

The 91st Academy Awards will air live on ABC, but there are also a number of ways to watch Hollywood's biggest night online using your mobile device, desktop, or set-top streamer. Here's how to catch the Oscars livestream.

YouTube changes its strikes system, offers softer first-offense penalty

YouTube announced changes to its strikes system for its content creators. The changes include a softer first-offense penalty for creators who violate YouTube's guidelines and more consistent penalties for further violations.

An experimental feature could help reduce memory usage in Google Chrome

Google Chrome might be the most popular web browser, but it also is a resource hog. Google is currently working on an experimental feature for Chrome which sets out to reduce its overall memory usage. 

Need a free alternative to Adobe Illustrator? Here are our favorites

Photoshop and other commercial tools can be expensive, but drawing software doesn't need to be. The best free drawing software is just as powerful as some of the more expensive offerings.

Edit, sign, append, and save with six of the best PDF editors

Though there are plenty of PDF editors to be had online, finding a solution with the tools you need can be tough. Here are the best PDF editors for your editing needs, no matter your budget or OS.

Rid yourself of website notification requests in just a few easy steps

Wish you knew how to block browser and website notifications? You can do it on a case by case basis, but that can become dull after the 10th site has asked for your approval. Here's how to block them outright.

Don't take your provider's word for it. Here's how to test your internet speed

If you're worried that you aren't getting the most from your internet package, speed tests are a great way to find out what your real connection is capable of. Here are the best internet speed tests available today.