Tuesday, Sep 25, 2018
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Will Tomer


Why banning ‘extremist content’ isn’t as easy as it sounds

  • Alwaki-jpg

    Anwar al-Awlaki


  • Awlaki-warning-label-png

    The Counter Extremism Project has accused YouTube of "inconsistently" flagging videos of Mr. Awlaki.



Infringements on free speech are becoming familiar territory for YouTube. The company’s most recent brush with censorship, however, could be its complicated case yet.

Since the Islamic State rose to power, using social media platforms to expand its reach, YouTube has begun cracking down on “extremist content.”

Read last week’s ‘Free Speech For Thee?’ column

Advertisers expressed discomfort with their ads being shown before Islamic State-posted video. Even more users were horrified when videos of the Islamic State beheading prisoners managed to slip by censors and onto the computers of those perusing YouTube.

While the company has long tried to keep its site free of graphic violence and calls for violence, it announced in June that it would be removing ads from “videos that contain inflammatory religious or supremacist content.”

But recently this policy was expanded even further.

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that the video-sharing website’s had decided to wipe thousands of videos of Anwar Al-Awlaki from its pages.

Mr. Awlaki was an American cleric who aligned himself with al-Qaeda and allegedly influenced a number of terrorists, including Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood gunman, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day in 2009.

Mr. Awlaki was once dubbed “the bin Laden of the Internet” thanks to his use of sites like YouTube to publish his religious talks and propaganda

There have been calls for the removal of Mr. Awlaki’s videos for years. A few individuals, such as former House speaker and onetime presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, have called for direct restrictions on speech from accused terrorists. Most, however, have merely “encouraged” Internet companies to prohibit this speech.

“Pressure on Internet companies to take down his work is growing,” the Times reported in 2015, “because legal experts say the First Amendment would prohibit the government from ordering restrictions.”

Confronted by intense pressure from government officials and activists, YouTube has finally caved to the pressure. More than 50,000 videos of Mr. Awlaki were removed since the beginning of the fall.

“It’s a watershed moment on the question of whether we’re going to allow the unchecked proliferation of cyberjihad,” Mark D. Wallace, the chief executive of the Counter Extremism Project, told the Times. “You just don’t want to make it easy for people to listen to a guy who wants to harm us.”

In the wake of the decision to remove Mr. Awlaki’s videos, Reuters reported that the company will now be removing videos that contain “extremist” content as a matter of policy.

But how do you define extremist content? Do you, like the later Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, know it when you see it? Or is there a more concrete definition?

Simply put, there is not.

YouTube, itself, has been inconsistent in the applications of its censorship. Such inconsistencies belie that notion that YouTube and its parent companies, Google and Alphabet, truly care about “free expression” as they have long claimed.

While the decision to keep ads off of “inflammatory religious or supremacist content” has been praised by many, similar filters accidentally restricted “hundreds of thousands” of videos from LGBTQ+ users of YouTube in the spring. Public outrage caused YouTube to reinstate the videos.

There are no official figures for how much content is added to YouTube on a daily basis, but some estimate that more than 100 hours of video are added per minute. As a result, the site frequently uses algorithms to determine what is or is not “extremist” and lots of material is bound to get caught in the crossfire.

Perhaps even more to the point, there have been efforts by governments to use open-ended rhetoric to target free speech.

For example, in 2015, then-Home Secretary Theresa May proposed a bill that would criminalize non-violent extremist behavior in the United Kingdom. The bill eventually failed after “government lawyers had found it impossible to find a ‘legally robust’ definition of extremism that would have any chance of surviving a free speech challenge in the courts.”

The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald has argued that videos from “extremist” Muslims such as Mr. Awlaki pose less of a threat to free speech than the subsequent attempts from governments and companies to curb expression.

“There has long been a broad, sustained assault in the West on core political liberties — specifically due process, free speech and free assembly — perpetrated not by ‘radical Muslims,’ but by those who endlessly claim to fight them,” wrote Mr. Greenwald.

In a subsequent piece, Mr. Greenwald highlighted the irony of attempting to take freedoms away from the freedom-hating terrorists.

“I certainly don’t think their right to espouse these dangerous ideas ought to be suppressed or punished,” wrote Mr. Greenwald. “The solution to their dangerous ideas is to confront and refute them, not outlaw them. But it is vital to recognize the danger they and their ideas entail. We’ve been told for years that the terrorists ‘hate our freedoms,’ yet we cannot seem to rid ourselves of those who think the solution is to voluntarily abolish those freedoms ourselves.”

Mr. Greenwald also rightly pointed to the 2015 New York Times report, which stated that the Obama Administration’s killing of Mr. Awlaki had not silenced his ideas but had instead “enhanced the appeal of his message to his admirers, who view him as a martyr.”

One could reasonably expect that YouTube’s decision will achieve the same effect.

And with the door now open for “extremist content” to be removed with little or no transparency, YouTube should consider amending its claim as a platform “for expression.” Perhaps re-labeling the services as a platform “for politically correct expression” would be more accurate.

Contact Will Tomer at wtomer@theblade.com, 419-724-6404, or on Twitter @WillTomer.

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