Google said it decided to block the video in Egypt and Libya because of the “very sensitive situations there” and not because the White House requested it.
A company official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal thinking at Google, said, “Dealing with controversial content is one of the biggest challenges we face as a company.”
The decision has drawn an uneasy reaction, with some civil libertarians blasting Google for essentially censoring access for some potential viewers. For critics, the decision recalled Google’s former compliance with Chinese government restrictions on a wide range of content — before the company moved its offices and servers to Hong Kong in 2010, beyond the reach of Chinese censorship laws.
The motives of both Google and the White House drew suspicion this week, with some saying that U.S. officials might have sought to send a political message — distancing the United States from the anti-Muslim video — by revealing their efforts to have it blocked. The officials had no legal authority to demand action, legal experts say.
“It’s a little bit of censorship and a little bit of diplomacy in a difficult situation,” said Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties for the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society.
Yet the controversy has highlighted how much of the world’s information is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of powerful companies. Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain said these “corporate gatekeepers” are essential to keeping free speech robust.
He praised efforts to establish guidelines for when content is removed or blocked from some viewers. Yet he said many hard decisions will come when actual cases arise.
“Anyone who says this is a no-brainer, I’m dubious about,” Zittrain said. “Because it’s not a no-brainer, and it’s not going to go away.”
David Nakamura and Julie Tate contributed to this report.