Legal experts and civil libertarians, meanwhile, said the controversy highlighted how Internet companies, most based in the United States, have become global arbiters of free speech, weighing complex issues that traditionally are the province of courts, judges, and occasionally, international treaty.
“Notice that Google has more power over this than either the Egyptian or the U.S. government,” said Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor. “Most free speech today has nothing to do with governments and everything to do with companies.”
In temporarily blocking the video in some countries, legal experts say, Google implicitly invoked the concept of “clear and present danger.” That’s a key exception to the broad First Amendment protections in the United States, where free speech is more jealously guarded than almost anywhere in the world.
The Internet has been a boon to free speech, bringing access to information that governments have long tried to suppress. Recall last spring’s freewheeling Internet chatter over Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident, as he evaded capture in a country known for its tight control of news sources.
Google has positioned itself as an ally of such freedoms, as newspapers, book publishers and television stations long have. But because of the immediacy and global reach of Internet companies, they face particular challenges in addressing a range of legal restrictions, cultural sensitivities and, occasionally, national security concerns.
“Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter now play this adjudicatory role on free speech,” said Andrew McLaughlin, a former top policy official at Google who later worked the Obama White House as deputy chief technology officer.
Nazi propaganda, for example, can be found on Google.com but not Google.de, the site tailored for use in Germany, where such speech is illegal. In the United States, images of animal cruelty can be found through Google’s search algorithm — which is a key tool for legitimate researchers — but are blocked on YouTube, which the company owns but strives for a more PG sensibility, blocking pornography, gratuitous violence and hate speech.
Despite Google’s history as a steward of appropriate content, the White House outreach on the movie clip was remarkable, longtime observers of the company say.
Upset foreign governments occasionally block YouTube entirely within their borders to stop a video from being watched, as Afghanistan has done. Sometimes governments formally ask Google to block a YouTube video, which India and Indonesia have both done with the controversial movie clip. (Google said it complies with legal, written requests by governments to block videos from being viewed in their countries.)