Sept. 25 2008
WASHINGTON – In a partial victory this month, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., persuaded video-streaming Web site YouTube to crack down on content that promotes terrorism, but failed to secure more sweeping changes that critics say would amount to an assault on free speech.
Lieberman issued a press release on Sept. 11 commending the Google-owned site’s new uploading policy, which outlaws videos “inciting others to commit violent acts.” He also hailed Google’s efforts to remove videos depicting attacks on U.S. soldiers, which enforces the site’s existing ban on graphically violent content.
But in a letter sent in May to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Lieberman also had asked YouTube to remove any content branded with logos associated with foreign terrorist organizations, a step Google was unwilling to take.
“While we respect and understand his views,” the company wrote on its policy blog in response to Lieberman’s letter, “YouTube encourages free speech and defends everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view.”
The right to incite violence is not protected by the First Amendment, Sam Bayard , assistant director of Harvard University’s Citizen Media Law Project, notes on the project’s blog. Yet, since Google is a private company, its member guidelines do not necessarily have to conform to free-speech laws.
Lieberman has the right to ask Google to enforce its own rule barring violent material on YouTube, according to Bayard, but he suggested that the senator’s request that the company pull content based solely on its source amounts to hypocrisy.
“Doesn’t our current government routinely accuse radical Islamists of being intolerant of opposing viewpoints and disrespectful to human rights?” Bayard wrote. “It undercuts our country’s position in the world when we turn around and exhibit a lack of tolerance and a willingness to curtail free expression.”
Bayard acknowledged that “this isn’t necessarily a legal issue” since Lieberman only requested that Google take action.
Similarly, a bill introduced in the House of Representatives last year merely recommended that sites such as YouTube take action to remove terrorist propaganda.
Lieberman has no plans to introduce legislation that would require video-streaming sites to remove terrorism-related content, according to Leslie Phillips, communications director for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which Lieberman chairs.
But Phillips did not rule out that the senator would consider asking sites to divulge to the federal government personal information on users who post videos branded with logos associated with Islamic terrorism.
“The senator expects YouTube to work with law enforcement when the site is being used to break the law,” Phillips said.