I’ve been thinking about Operation YouTube Smackdown from a Free Speech perspective ever since we began. I’m generally more of a Free Speech purist than the sort calling for nanny-labels on every little thing. Give parents a chance to at least know what’s in the stuff they’re buying for their kids, whether it’s breakfast cereal or music albums. Then let grown people be grownups. So what gives with the YouTube Smackdown? Sure, YouTube's own policies claim they don’t tolerate hate speech or graphic violence. Of course, the hundreds of videos we’ve flagged that they haven’t taken down suggest they’re quite willing to tolerate that very thing. But, still, who died and made us the YouTube hall monitors?
Nobody. You may have heard it said that hypocrisy is the last remaining sin in our postmodern, morally-relative world. Maybe nobody can hold anybody else to a common set of standards anymore. But if someone isn’t living up to their own standards, you can still call them a hypocrite, right? Well, Google, the ‘Don’t Be Evil’ company, owns YouTube. If you read the YouTube editors blog it’s clear the standards they hold up for their company and their users resemble University Hate Speech codes far more than they resemble some wild-west, libertarian free-speech utopia. So there’s that.
But that hardly satisfies if we’re looking for a serious evaluation. It’s a valid argument, but asking people to practice what they preach isn’t the same thing as seriously considering the merits of what it is, exactly, that they’re preaching. I believe in free speech, probably more than the folks at YouTube. Especially if you consider the history of the kinds of videos they have removed. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the story by Rachel Lucas of the video where a squirrel dodges a rock (no squirrels were harmed in the making of that video). It was removed on grounds of animal abuse. You’d think a video of a humvee not dodging an IED would be more removable on grounds of cruelty to the soldiers riding inside.
Many videos like those of John McCain singing ‘Bomb, bomb Iran’ were removed, then put back up. And for all I know, removed and put back up again. A pillar of consistency YouTube ain’t. They’ve shown a willingness to delete videos by anti-jihadists like Crusader18. Then there’s Nick Gisburne, the athiest who got his video banned for simply quoting some of the harsher lines from the Koran. The link I’ll provide about that comes from the website of the famous athiest and biologist Richard Dawkins. Why? Because it gives me an opening to repeat a quote Dawkins used in a letter to Prince Charles about open-mindedness in science. “Of course we must be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.” I can’t resist pointing out how YouTube seems at least open-minded enough to host videos of people’s brains literally spilling out.
Perhaps most famously, right around the time Google bought YouTube last year, someone at YouTube decided to take down Michelle Malkin’s “First they Came” video Vent. The only explanation they seemed willing to give, in an attempt to defend against the charge the video was removed for polical reasons, was that it contained graphic violence. Yes, it showed a still photo of the body of Theo Van Gogh after his assassination. The one where the killer pinned a note in the guy’s chest saying Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be next. The photo showed a small amount of blood on the pavement, with Theo’s body covered by a sheet. I defy you to visit the Strong Stomach section of our Daily Dozen and tell me what you see there is less objectionable than a guy under a sheet.
Maybe the folks over at Daily Kos got together and flagged Michelle’s video en masse and that’s why Malkin’s video was taken down, who knows. YouTube displays how many times a video has been viewed, commented on, or favorited. But they don’t like to admit how often folks object to the videos they host. Still, they do seem to respond to pressure. More recently, some guy uploaded a video of himself saying how glad he was Daniel Pearl had gotten his head cut off. This got written up by, among others, Michelle Malkin and Little Green Footballs (the guys who first published the animation comparing Dan Rather’s ‘discovery’ of Bush’s 70s era military records and what anyone could produce in 2 minutes with Microsoft Word). Before the day of the resulting blogswarm of people flagging that video was over, YouTube had removed the video and deleted the guy’s account. All for nothing worse than saying he was glad another guy got killed. How is that different from showing footage of IEDs exploding under vehicles while singing and shouting Allahu Akbar? (I’ll leave for another day the question of where we might find all the outrage over these kinds of videos you’d expect from moderate Muslims, trying to defend their peaceful religion being against being hijacked.)
And of course, YouTube is willing to cater to the demands of different countries like Thailand and Turkey when it comes to removing videos unfriendly to the ruling government. They don’t mind a little censorship if it’ll help them sell more ad space. And I won’t even bother linking to anything about the issues over copyright, where entertainment companies have learned to tell YouTube to jump in a way that gets YouTube to ask, “Is this high enough?" Apparently, the line the folks at YouTube are paying the most attention to is their bottom line. When it comes to their Community Guidelines, all bets are off. Because when it comes to removing anything else, their first response is always, “meh, do it yourself.” Or rather, they cover their legal keisters against any responsibility for the videos their users upload. They say they’ll remove anything that doesn’t meet their standards. At least, whenever users complain by flagging objectionable videos, and not until (or maybe not, even then).
But what happens when they review a flagged video, and they decide to keep it up? Do they assume responsibility then? For what? Making a kid cry because he saw it? Or because some guy watched it and was inspired to volunteer to blow himself up in a pizza parlor? If anyone’s out there testing the legal theories, I’m not aware of it. But I’d like to be. Also, this emphasis on creative legal theories, like the hypocrisy standard, seems to miss the point somehow. Or rather, it sounds like the kind of thing you’d hear when someone’s trying to score a point instead of make one. And I want to make a point here, something more fundmental. One of my mottoes is, “It’s more important to find out what’s right than who’s right.” Games of who can point out the most hypocrisies lead nowhere, or favor those who hold out the fewest real standards to begin with. And ya gotta figure YouTube would win on that score, given their track record.
So how do we reconcile the value of free speech with my conviction that YouTube is creating externalities that are harmful to others? With a little free speech of our own. YouTube is fobbing off the workload, and legal responsibility, onto their site’s users. This is what allows them to host videos that incite and recruit on behalf of radical Islamist terrorists (even after they’re flagged). Is that all they need to do so they "don’t be evil"? I’m not qualified to say they’re breaking any laws here. At least, not clearly enough to convince a prosecuter to go up against YouTube and/or Google over them. But if folks on the political left want to hold gun manufacturers liable for gun crimes, why aren’t they demanding YouTube be held reponsible for terrorism aided and abetted by the videos they host? Don’t answer, it’s a tortured legal argument to begin with. Still, they got Al Capone for back taxes. But they got Al Capone.
I think it’s gotta come down to a simpler kind of argument. Is hosting these videos right or wrong, in and of itself? You’ll have to judge that for yourself. And once you do, you can decide if you want to join the Smackdown or not. You’re a grownup. But I say YouTube has spent so much time making sure they’re not liable for anything illegal, it seems they’ve forgotten about trying to avoid doing wrong. Not in the PC, touchy-feely sense where they ask people to be nice leaving comments on other people’s videos. I’m talking about the right and wrong of the kinds of acts and values these jihad videos endorse. “Don’t be evil”? Ha! I’m starting to think the average YouTube staff reviewers wouldn’t recognize true evil if it was 6 inches in front of their faces.
Which, if you think about it, is right where we’re trying to put the jihadi videos when we flag them.