How a 14-Minute Video Can Trigger Violence Abroad

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A perceived cozy relationship between the U.S. government and Internet companies doesn't help.

One of the more perplexing questions that still remains on the protests gripping the Arab world this week is how, exactly, some shoddy, contrived, melodramatic footage disdainful of Muhammad came to stand as proxy for U.S. opinion on Islam writ large.

Whether or not this Innocence of Muslims is simply a pawn, as is seeming quite possible, there's a striking theme that's coming out of the high-level debate over its existence: whether something could have, and should have, been done in the U.S. to get rid of it at some point as it was made, translated into Arabic, and distributed to the world via YouTube and other means.

Start with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's ruling party. In a statement linked to from their Facebook page, the Brotherhood argues that films like the one at issue here "will continue to cause devout Muslims across the world to suspect and even loathe the West, especially the USA, for allowing their citizens to violate the sanctity of what they hold dear and holy." It goes on to contend, with great conviction, that "preparations for this abuse took place plainly, right under the noses of authorities in those countries -- over several months." Two phrases in particular jump out: allowing their citizens and under the noses of authorities. In other words, the powers-that-be in the United States let this happen, and they were in a position to know of it all along.

That's an understanding that Hillary Clinton just can't let stand. She's been trying this week to reframe the debate, such as it is. The film is "disgusting and reprehensible," said a somber Secretary of State in Washington yesterday. "Let me state clearly, and I hope that it's obvious, that the United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video." It's difficult for people who operate in different speech environments to understand, she has also said, why objectionable content simply can't be disappeared. Never mind First Amendment protections -- and never mind the queasy feeling that such a disappearance might provoke for Americans. "In today's world," said Clinton, "with today's technologies, that is impossible."

But this gets us into some messy business. If the Muhammad video is a symbolic offense, there are gatekeepers who have the power to make it symbolically go away. Google responded this week by restricting access to the offending footage in Libya and Egypt, using a sort of geo-restriction regime that Twitter adopted in January for limiting the effects of global legal objections to specific tweets. Google, which owns YouTube, acted despite the fact that it simultaneously asserted that the footage fell within its Community Guidelines. Those rules are imbued with a sort of Silicon Valley-ish sense of enlightenment: "We're not asking for the kind of respect reserved for nuns, the elderly, and brain surgeons. We mean don't abuse the site." But times are difficult in Libya and Egypt, said Google. Here, Community Guidelines are not enough. It's too risky, the thinking seemed to go, to allow the video to exist on YouTube in places that are already inflamed.

Google's choice taps into an on-going debate in the U.S. over who governs online spaces, and how they govern them. The U.S. is unique in our speech laws, no doubt. That's well known. But less well known is that we're also unique in our laws that rule who's responsible for what online. One of the most forward-thinking decisions made by U.S. lawmakers in the early days of the Internet was not to require online publishers to police the platforms they offer up to the world. If YouTube had to vet every video that was uploaded to it, YouTube would likely be an impossibility. That approach helped the United States become the inarguable geographic center of the Internet. That approach has been the crux of the participatory web. That approach has allowed Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Instragram, you name it, to flourish.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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