Prominent Senator Calls on Google to Remove Terrorist YouTube Videos

In an explicit bid to restrict content on the Internet, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) has asked YouTube to remove Islamic terrorist videos from the highly popular video Web site.

Responding to a letter the senator wrote in May 2008, the site’s owner, Google, agreed to remove 80 videos that violated YouTube’s terms of use. But Lieberman says that isn’t enough, and he wants the remaining videos taken down.

Censorship Question

Bruce Abramson, president of Informationism, Inc. in San Francisco, California and an expert on intellectual property issues, said Lieberman’s message to YouTube raises troubling issues.

“One of the things to remember about YouTube is they pull things all the time. For example, they pull pornography,” Abramson said. “[Y]ou have a very complicated issue here. You certainly don’t want government action that requires a company to put in place … [a] content review. You don’t want to say to YouTube, ‘Invest in new ways of monitoring what goes up and who’s posting it so you can pull it if it’s inappropriate.’ It’s bad for the free market, bad for technological development, bad overall.

“From a free-market perspective, there is a huge difference between a request and a demand. The difference is night and day,” Abramson said.

Existing Removal Policy

Daniel Ballon, Ph.D., a policy fellow in technology studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, California, thinks YouTube’s system already in place should determine censorship on the site.

“The federal government should not force private companies to censor legal and protected free speech,” Ballon said. “By forbidding the posting of videos that depict or solicit violent criminal acts, YouTube’s policies already ban materials posing a legitimate threat to national security.”

Legal interference raises economic questions, Abramson cautions. “Strictly from the perspective of the free market, if I already have a mechanism in place, whether I also decide to expand a category to include more objectionable material is not really a market issue. If we start changing laws that regulate these things, that becomes a market issue.”

Possible Advantages

Lieberman objects to critics’ claims he is interfering with market processes on the basis of personal dislike.

In a letter to The New York Times, Lieberman wrote, “What is ludicrous is the claim that YouTube has been pressured to pull down videos just because I don’t like them. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are engaged in a wartime communications strategy to recruit, amass funds, and inspire savage attacks against American troops and civilians. Their Internet videos are branded with logos, authenticating them as enemy communications. They are patent incitements to violence, not First Amendment-protected speech. And they fall outside Google’s own stated guidelines for content.”

Ballon, by contrast, suggests the posting of the videos could be viewed as part of a valid discussion. “Ideas, dialog, debate, and discussion are not threats to national security. They are the foundation on which our nation was built,” he said.

Abramson says such postings may actually help the government be more aware of terrorist activity. “What happens when you get something being used for terrorist groups to communicate to some extent, letting them use open forums, lets them spread their message. It also helps everyone else know what’s going on.”

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Texas.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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