March 21, 2008

YouTube Unplugged (and human rights)

As Foreign Governments Block Sensitive
Content, Video Site Must Pick Between
Bending to Censorship, Doing Business
March 21, 2008; Page B1

On Sunday, access to Google Inc.'s YouTube inside China was cut off after the Web site was flooded with graphic images from Tibet, including videos of burning trucks and monks being dragged through the streets by Chinese soldiers.

Blocking Western Web sites is routine in China, where the government has tightly controlled the flow of information. But the new YouTube blackout is the latest in a string of clashes between the site and foreign governments in Asia and the Middle East that's forcing the company to grapple with the consequences of its increasingly global reach.

Click the images to watch the videos at YouTube.
[V1] Chinese police scatter a crowd of Tibetan protesters in East Tibet. "Tibetan culture is being suppressed," an unidentified Tibetan monk says.
[v2] On March 10, the Tibetan Freedom Movement launches protests around the world. In New York City, supporters gather at City Hall and march to U.N. headquarters.
[v3] A composition of photographs from the Tibetan protests around the world, with the song "Come Home" by the American band, OneRepublic.
[v4] Video taken with a mobile phone of Tibetan protesters gathering in front of a Chinese office in Labrang, Amdo, Tibet, March 15.

Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt raised the issue in a meeting in Beijing with Cai Mingzhao, vice minister of the State Council Information Office, on Monday, the company said. The Council denied any knowledge of the blockage and promised to investigate, according to Google. On Thursday, YouTube remained inaccessible from China except to users who took extra technical steps to circumvent the ban.

Last Friday, a Turkish court banned YouTube over a clip deemed disrespectful to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder. In February, Pakistan briefly banned YouTube because of an anti-Islam video clip posted on the site that the government said was so inflammatory it could spark riots. In the fall, Thailand blocked YouTube after the site refused to remove a video considered insulting to the nation's king. (The clip showed a pair of women's feet -- considered the most offensive part of the body -- above the king's head.) And citizens in a number of other countries, including Syria, United Arab Emirates and Morocco, have reported YouTube outages after sensitive content was posted.

The clashes have implications for YouTube's growth abroad, potentially forcing the company to choose between bending to censorship and losing business opportunities.

"This is a situation that the company and all Internet companies will be facing in many countries with all types of political systems as the Internet matures and millions more people log on," says Robert Boorstin, Google's director of policy communications in Washington. "At all times, our goal is to maximize the amount of information available to citizens around the world."

Nowhere is the issue more pressing than in China -- home to the world's largest population of Web users -- where agreeing to government censorship has been a basic condition of doing business for years. YouTube is still a relatively small player in China, lagging behind homegrown competitors like and But it has a loyal following among young urban Chinese, who use it to find cutting-edge animation clips from Korea and Japan. Many Chinese also know YouTube as a place to find sensitive clips that have been removed from other Chinese sites.

The site has been blocked in China several times before, including for an extended period in October. That was around the time that YouTube launched a site in Taiwan, the U.S. Congress awarded the Dalai Lama its gold medal and the Chinese Communist Party congress was under way. YouTube has localized versions of its site in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but not one hosted in China itself, a move that would require an Internet-content license from the Chinese government. Google has said it doesn't plan to host user-generated content, such as video, blogs or email, on computer servers in China. Such materials would be vulnerable to seizure by the government if located on servers there.

Google previously grappled with censorship issues in China when it released a Chinese search service in January 2006. At the time, it decided to censor its search results to comply with Beijing's strict limits on access to information, concluding that was better than not offering any regularly accessible service at all. On Thursday, a Google search for "Tibet" and "riots" turned up few results. The same search on Google's U.S.-based English search site produced some 461,000 results.

So far, YouTube is taking a similar approach, despite ongoing debate at Google over the strategy. In Thailand, in order to be accessible, it agreed to block Thai users from seeing clips deemed insulting to the king in violation of Thai law. In Turkey, YouTube has suspended the account of the person who uploaded the Ataturk video, though the site remains banned there. In Myanmar, YouTube was banned after clips of protesting monks appeared on the site. In that case, YouTube declined to remove the clips and remains banned.

Media analysts say YouTube's string of censorship flare-ups -- and the site's sometimes inconsistent responses -- indicate it needs to develop a more transparent strategy for dealing with these issues. YouTube's community guidelines state the site encourages "free speech and defend[s] everyone's right to express unpopular points of view." But the site also reserves the right to remove content it deems inappropriate, which gives it significant discretion when it comes to politically sensitive content.

"We have a delicate balancing act between being a platform for free expression and also obeying local laws around the world," says YouTube spokesman Ricardo Reyes.

YouTube reviews videos when they are flagged by users to determine whether they violate its terms of use, which prohibit such content as graphic violence. YouTube users can appeal the removal of videos, which can trigger a secondary review.

After being alerted by users last month, YouTube removed a video clip that appeared to document abuse of prisoners at a Russian prison camp that YouTube determined violated the site's graphic-violence policy. It eventually restored the video but required viewers to click to consent to watch a clip that "may contain content that is inappropriate for some users." YouTube says its staff hadn't initially been aware that the video was meant to document alleged human-rights abuses.

The stakes are high because material distributed on YouTube is affecting some of the world's most incendiary political situations. "It's actually changed the whole political scenario in Pakistan," says Shahzad Ahmad, an activist with the civil-rights group Bytes for All in Pakistan, who believes the site played a role in the defeat to Pervez Musharraf's party in recent elections.

Google has reached out to the U.S. State Department for assistance with the censorship issue in China, says a person familiar with the matter. The company, along with Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others, has been working for more than 18 months with human-rights groups, academics and socially responsible investors to develop a code of conduct for operating in countries that limit free expression and individual privacy. A bill to be considered by Congress would require U.S. companies to provide the U.S. government with details of any compliance with censorship in Internet-restricting countries.

-- Juliet Ye contributed to this article.

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