TOC Dead for Raison d'Entreprise Your Turn

September 18, 2012

"He gave his life helping [the Libyan people] build a better country". Yet the very eulogy of US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stresses how the service of his own country is what led to his death in Benghazi. Is this but a tragic tale of two countries, correctly covered by Peter Baker, David D. Kirkpatrick and Suliman Ali Zway's article in the international section of their newspaper (*)?

This is the truth. It is not the whole truth. Christopher Stevens also died for Raison d'Entreprise, the cold calculations which mirror the Raison d'Etat in a world that Thanassis Cambanis qualifies as post-Westphalian (**). "Are corporations exerting too much influence on sovereign governments?", he asked two weeks ago. At least they are on par. Didn't the same newspaper section carry Claire Cain Miller's analysis of Google's role (***)?

The proximate cause of the riots which erupted in Benghazi and throughout the Muslim world is reported by Adam Nagourney to be a "14-minute YouTube clip" (****). What Michael Peel describes as "a crude piece of propaganda against the Prophet Mohammed" (*****) "did not violate [Google's] terms of service" however. And Claire Cain Miller to detail its external policy regarding the different countries in which it has services.

Let the experts apportion blame between those who love nothing so much as to pile up powder kegs or play with matches or pour oil on fires. Let them disentangle the exact circumstances of Mr Stevens's last hours on this earth. For these fillips however, his death holds further lessons.

Censorship is inescapable. Despite its idolatrous adoration of Freedom of Speech, even America practices censorship. But like corruption, censorship is more an issue of vocabulary than of principle. Censorship is what other powers do. What Americans do is to protect people's lives.

Although Google and the United States are independent world powers and act on their several interests, they share the same philosophy. Allow me therefore to quote YouTube's censorship policy, which it calls "community guidelines" (1). It forbids "hate speech", which it defines as "content which promotes hatred towards members of a protected group". Who would disagree? But a rose remains a rose by any other name.

Let the diplomats pick their way through the pitfalls of translation, especially English and the diversity of NewSpeak dialects.

Censorship is difficult. Again doesn't YouTube recognize one walks "a fine line between what is and what is not considered hate speech"? And when I claim censorship ought to be driven by legal, transparent, objective rules with a common redress process, doesn't it oblige?

The devil naturally is in the details. There the Raison d'Entreprise finds the freedom it needs to justify what YouTube judges to be expedient. The above clip "was against the Muslim religion but not Muslim people". I hear the logic of reason, I smell the hypocrisy of power.

What if Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad posted videos belittling the right of Israel to exist? YouTube answers "it is generally OK to criticize a nation". With one weasel word, "generally", YouTube transforms its "hate speech" rule into an opaque, arbitrary criterion which can be used to protect any state as long as it furthers Google's own external policy goals.

In fact YouTube could have censored the calamitous clip had its Raison d'Entreprise dictated it. Doesn't its policy forbid to post "things intended to shock or disgust". Apropos harassment, doesn't it state "it comes down to respect". When deemed appropriate, audience perception does matter.

Indeed the right to insult must admit a limit according to how the insult is received. As Kareem Fahim and Rachel Donadio quoted Pope Benedict XVI in Lebanon, "human liberty is always a shared liberty" (******). Sharing your views is not the same as shelling your targets with words that kill.

Censorship should be dynamic. For one thing, preemptively policing YouTube would require some 13,000 new hires to view "the sheer volume involved: 72 hours of video uploaded each minute". Yet what is feasible for a company with "more than 30,000 employees worldwide" (2) and annual profits approaching $10 billion (3) is not necessarily reasonable and making censorship a matter of money misses the real nature of the issue.

There can be no respect without listening. Extending people's protection from physical harm to emotional distress requires tracking user feedback before taking action and entails some delay. In the past I have defended Google when its executive were wrongly convicted in Italy for the mere posting by a third party of a video injurious to a defenseless person and later deleted. Such reactive censorship is not a flight from responsibility.

It is also the way to defeat the favorite argument for unfettered free speech. As an irritable skin cannot even bear the caresse of the lightest feather, allow the target a say about your insults and soon you will be silenced, your most innocent remark suspect of hidden irony if not blatant malevolence.

Yet why get worked up on a forgettable production drowned in what Gillian Tett calls the current "tsunami of pictures and videos" (*******)? Upload anything there and it "simply sit[s], buried, in a corner of cyber space". In contrast with Apple's oppressing controls, Google's reactive censorship creates a more open environment. True, were Prince William's wife to appear in Prince Harry's costume on YouTube, a single message should be enough for Google to promptly remove the offending post. But unheralded until a few days ago, the above clip bothered nobody.

Follow Ethan Zuckerman, who asks for "more tools to filter [media from Syria]" and works to promote "posts from people in poor countries [...] in an accessible form in the west". Flip the mirror and find our evil video went viral through this very scenario, with a "later dubb[ing] into Arabic" and a televised recommendation by "Sheikh Khalid Abdullah, an Egyptian cleric", as Michael Peel reported. Recommendations then and censorship are but the two opposite faces of the same filter, indispensible for anyone who wants to safely sample said tsunami.

Google can easily spot sudden rises in popularity on YouTube to activate a circuit breaker and snip any malicious micro-bubble in the bud. Doesn't Paypal freeze vendor access to accounts which appear abnormally successful? Reactive censorship can support both openness and prevention.

While Ethan Zuckerman echoes my constant theme about recommendation systems and personal recommenders, he complains "crucial groups such as Facebook refuse to release their raw data to academics" to study "how key words and issues spread". I doubt Facebook will give away the stolen source of its great expectations but I wish no research trial would try to enroll users, so easily identifiable, without their explicit consent.

Eprivacy carries little weight in front of the Raison d'Entreprise. But Google Non-State Department would do well to improve its censorship policy.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............... Diplomats' Bodies Return to U.S., and Libyan Guards Recount Deadly Riot,
    ...................... by Peter Baker, David D. Kirkpatrick and Suliman Ali Zway (New York Times) - September 15, 2012
  • (**) ............ Farewell, Westphalia, by Thanassis Cambanis (Boston Globe) - September 2, 2012
  • (***) ......... Google Has No Plans To Rethinks Video Status, by Claire Cain Miller (New York Times) - September 15, 2012
  • (****) ....... Video That Stoked Violence Has Murky History, by Adam Nagourney (New York Times) - September 13, 2012
  • (*****) ..... YouTube film ignites Muslim anger, by Michael Peel (Financial Times) - September 13, 2012
  • (******) ... Benedict Takes Message Of Tolerance to Lebanon, by Kareem Fahim and Rachel Donadio (New York Times) - September 15, 2012
  • (*******) . An internet free for all, read by none, by Gillian Tett (Financial Times) - September 15, 2012
  • (1) for more details, see YouTube's community guidelines
  • (2) see the official Google site
  • (3) for more details, see Google on wikipedia
September 2012
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