Bowing to their better civic natures, and the pleas of James Foley's family, Twitter and YouTube have pulled down videos and photos of his murder. They had every right to do so, and in my view they did the right thing.
So why am I so uncomfortable with this? Because it's not clear what's too vile to host. And, even more, because Twitter and YouTube are among a tiny group of giant companies with greater and greater power—and less and less accountability—over what we read, hear, and watch online.
Who gave them this power? We did. And if we don’t take back what we’ve given away—and what’s being taken away—we’ll deserve what we get: a concentration of media power that will damage, if not eviscerate, our tradition of free expression.
For the moment, it's reasonable to dismiss the widely repeated accusation that removing the Foley videos was an act of censorship. When Twitter worked with the Turkish regime to remove certain accounts, that was censorship, if by proxy, because it was done on the orders of a government. And, of course, when governments directly block Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other services, as some do, that is direct censorship. But when Twitter and YouTube took down a murder-as-propaganda video, that was editing. (Show me evidence that the U.S. government persuaded Twitter and YouTube to do this, as it almost certainly did when the major payment systems cut off Wikileaks' funding several years ago, and I'll revise that view.)