Back in May, YouTube and its parent, Google, came under fire from Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) for allegedly harboring videos produced by Al Qaeda. On Wednesday, YouTube took a step to address these concerns, modifying its community guidelines to prohibit the posting of content that incites violence. Although Lieberman applauded the move, the fine line between violent content and news and proliferation of Internet video sites suggest that the whole exchange has more to do with PR than the fight against terrorism.
Lieberman's initial complaint focused on the presence of the Al Qaeda logo on "dozens" of videos found on YouTube. His open letter to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt charged that, "Islamist terrorist organizations use YouTube to disseminate their propaganda, enlist followers, and provide weapons training." Lieberman highlighted the community guidelines of YouTube, which prohibit "gratuitous violence," in calling for the removal of any videos produced by terrorist organizations. Some videos identified by Lieberman's staff were removed, but not all of them violated YouTube's standards, and so many remained.
The fact that many videos remained highlights a serious problem with this sort of demand: one person's gratuitous violence is another person's news. Deciding which videos violate the YouTube community standards will always be a judgment call, and there will never be unanimity in the evaluation of the decisions made by YouTube staff.
Nevertheless, YouTube updated its community standards on Wednesday, adding a "Tips" section that specifically addresses hate speech and illegal acts. "We draw the line at content that’s intended to incite violence or encourage dangerous, illegal activities that have an inherent risk of serious physical harm or death," the tips read, citing training videos for everyone from bomb makers to ninja assassins. In contrast, the tip discussing hate speech is remarkably vague.
As with violence, the difference between news and gratuitous hate speech can be extremely fine. The standard videos of Al Qaeda leadership often contain hate-filled statements, but that generally doesn't keep them from filling the airwaves during newscasts.
Lieberman, not surprisingly, claims the changes were, "in direct response to the Senator's complaints about violent Islamist videos." Calling the changes a tightening of standards, he declared that "videos that incite violence will be banned." Whether that actually happens, however, will ultimately remain in the hands of YouTube employees.
Even if YouTube does successfully crack down, the end result is simply likely to be a shifting of content to other sites. This issue was highlighted by coverage of the decision, which describes a counterterrorism expert who listed a variety of videos he's seen on the internet that essentially served as terrorist training—but was unsure whether any of them were actually on YouTube.
Because of all these caveats, it's doubtful that any changes in policy that result from the updated community standards will be largely a matter of public relations, rather than having a practical impact on the availability of videos that promote or enable violence.Posted on