YouTube, other net firms walk a fine line say ethical experts

*Correction made on September 21, 2012 to attribute the quote to Professor Ceasar McDowell, not Megan Bowler.*


TORONTO – Stop pointing fingers at YouTube for not taking down an anti-Islam video that has caused turmoil in Muslim countries worldwide, say a number of media ethics and cultural studies experts.

Nearly a week after it started, protests over the low-budget, anti-Islam movie called Innocence of Muslims, shows no sign of waning.

In an official statement, YouTube admitted that it’s a challenge to create a community that “enables people to express different opinions because what’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere.” However on Monday, the global corporation said that outside of Libya, Egypt, India and Indonesia, the video will remain on its website.

YouTube’s community guidelines state the company encourages free speech and defends everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view, however it does not permit hate speech.

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“‘Hate speech’ refers to content that promotes hatred against members of a protected group,” the guidelines state. “Sometimes there is a fine line between what is and what is not considered hate speech. For instance, it is generally okay to criticize a nation, but not okay to make insulting generalizations about people of a particular nationality.”

The controversy underscores how some Internet firms have been thrust into debates over the limits of free speech.

Dr. Becky Lentz, an assistant professor of Communication and Public Policy at Montreal’s McGill University, supports Google’s position on this issue. She said companies like Google walk a tightrope: they “must [be] sensitive to the legal and cultural environments in which they do business while also upholding a decision taken this year by the UN Human Rights Council to extend the right to freedom of expression to online forms of communication.”

The UN Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the UN made up of 47 States that is responsible to uphold and protect human rights around the world.

According to Kelly McBride, a media ethics expert and senior faculty member at the U.S-based Poynter Institute, YouTube has done a good job of “very delicately navigating” a situation where there are values in question that may contradict those in different parts of the world, mainly the freedom of expression. She said in democracies, such as the United States where YouTube is based, that freedom includes criticism and commentary of religion.

“YouTube is walking a balance between trying to uphold the values that are quite prominent in the U.S., the country that the company is located in, and the values that contradict that around the world,” said McBride.

“In a democracy you have to protect the freedom of expression even for minority viewpoints otherwise democracy doesn’t work.”

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The video has been blamed for playing a role in violence in Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and three others were killed. Although U.S. and Libyan officials are investigating whether the protests in Libya were a cover for militants, possibly al-Qaida sympathizers, to carry out a co-ordinated attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and kill Americans

Megan Boler, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Toronto, said the violence in the countries where its occuring is a typical “response of any community that continues to be villified and demonized by dominant cultures.” 


*Ceasar McDowell, Professor of Practice and Community Development at MIT also said the following. 

“We need only imagine if the controversial and racist film Birth of a Nation were screened on the streets in the south side of Los Angeles (where the Los Angeles rebellion took place) and the understandably angry responses.”

McBride suggested that a broader conversation needs to take place about how to bring democracy to some of the countries involved in the protests and perhaps agree upon a set of values when it comes to criticizing religious organizations. She uses the Catholic Church as an example.

“It’s been demonstrated that priests throughout the Catholic Church have molested children and that Bishops have covered up for them,” said McBride. “That’s the kind of speech that would not be allowed in a country where you are not allowed to criticize religion.” 

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with files from The Associated Press