COMPANIES are usually accountable to no one but their shareholders.
Internet companies are a different breed. Because they traffic in speech —
rather than, say, corn syrup or warplanes — they make decisions every day about
what kind of expression is allowed where. And occasionally they come under
pressure to explain how they decide, on whose laws and values they rely, and how
they distinguish between toxic speech that must be taken down and that which can
The storm over an incendiary anti-Islamic video posted on YouTube has stirred
fresh debate on these issues. Google, which owns YouTube, restricted access to
the video in Egypt and Libya, after the killing of a United States ambassador
and three other Americans. Then, it pulled the plug on the video in five other
countries, where the content violated local laws.
Some countries blocked YouTube altogether, though that didn’t stop the
bloodshed: in Pakistan, where elections are to be scheduled soon, riots on
Friday left a death toll of 19.
The company pointed to its internal edicts to explain why it rebuffed calls to
take down the video altogether. It did not meet its definition of hate speech,
YouTube said, and so it allowed the video to stay up on the Web. It didn’t say
very much more.
That explanation revealed not only the challenges that confront companies like
Google but also how opaque they can be in explaining their verdicts on what can
be said on their platforms. Google, Facebook and Twitter receive hundreds of
thousands of complaints about content every week.
“We are just awakening to the need for some scrutiny or oversight or public
attention to the decisions of the most powerful private speech controllers,”
said Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor who briefly advised the Obama
administration on consumer protection regulations online.
Google was right, Mr. Wu believes, to selectively restrict access to the crude
anti-Islam video in light of the extraordinary violence that broke out. But he
said the public deserved to know more about how private firms made those
decisions in the first place, every day, all over the world. After all, he
added, they are setting case law, just as courts do in sovereign countries.
Mr. Wu offered some unsolicited advice: Why not set up an oversight board of
regional experts or serious YouTube users from around the world to make the
especially tough decisions?
Google has not responded to his proposal, which he outlined in a blog post for
The New Republic.
Certainly, the scale and nature of YouTube makes this a daunting task. Any
analysis requires combing through over a billion videos and overlaying that
against the laws and mores of different countries. It’s unclear whether expert
panels would allow for unpopular minority opinion anyway. The company said in a
statement on Friday that, like newspapers, it, too, made “nuanced” judgments
about content: “It’s why user-generated content sites typically have clear
community guidelines and remove videos or posts that break them.”
Privately, companies have been wrestling with these issues for some time.
The Global Network Initiative, a conclave of executives, academics and
advocates, has issued voluntary guidelines on how to respond to government
requests to filter content.
And the Anti-Defamation League has convened executives, government officials and
advocates to discuss how to define hate speech and what to do about it.
Hate speech is a pliable notion, and there will be arguments about whether it
covers speech that is likely to lead to violence (think Rwanda) or demeans a
group (think Holocaust denial), just as there will be calls for absolute free
Behind closed doors, Internet companies routinely make tough decisions on
Apple and Google earlier this year yanked a mobile application produced by
Hezbollah. In 2010, YouTube removed links to speeches by an American-born
cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, in which he advocated terrorist violence; at the time,
the company said it proscribed posts that could incite “violent acts.”
ON rare occasions, Google has taken steps to educate users about offensive
content. For instance, the top results that come up when you search for the word
“Jew” include a link to a virulently anti-Jewish site, followed by a promoted
link from Google, boxed in pink. It links to a page that lays out Google’s
rationale: the company says it does not censor search results, despite
Susan Benesch, who studies hate speech that incites violence, said it would be
wise to have many more explanations like this, not least to promote debate.
“They certainly don’t have to,” said Ms. Benesch, director of the Dangerous
Speech Project at the World Policy Institute. “But we can encourage them to
because of the enormous power they have.”
The companies point out that they obey the laws of every country in which they
do business. And their employees and algorithms vet content that may violate
their user guidelines, which are public.
YouTube prohibits hate speech, which it defines as that which “attacks or
demeans a group” based on its race, religion and so on; Facebook’s hate speech
ban likewise covers “content that attacks people” on the basis of identity.
Google and Facebook prohibit hate speech; Twitter does not explicitly ban it.
And anyway, legal scholars say, it is exceedingly difficult to devise a
universal definition of hate speech.
Shibley Telhami, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, said he
hoped the violence over the video would encourage a nuanced conversation about
how to safeguard free expression with other values, like public safety. “It’s
really about at what point does speech becomes action; that’s a boundary that
becomes difficult to draw, and it’s a slippery slope,” Mr. Telhami said.
He cautioned that some countries, like Russia, which threatened to block YouTube
altogether, would be thrilled to have any excuse to squelch speech. “Does Russia
really care about this film?” Mr. Telhami asked.
International law does not protect speech that is designed to cause violence.
Several people have been convicted in international courts for incitement to
genocide in Rwanda.
One of the challenges of the digital age, as the YouTube case shows, is that
speech articulated in one part of the world can spark mayhem in another. Can the
companies that run those speech platforms predict what words and images might
set off carnage elsewhere? Whoever builds that algorithm may end up saving
In what authorities have called one of the largest criminal
copyright cases ever brought, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. have seized
the Web site Megaupload and charged seven people connected with it with running
an international enterprise based on Internet piracy.
Megaupload, one of the most popular so-called locker services on the Internet,
allowed users to transfer large files like movies and music anonymously. Media
companies have long accused it of abetting copyright infringement on a vast
scale. In a grand jury indictment, Megaupload is accused of causing $500 million
in damages to copyright owners and of making $175 million by selling ads and
The arrests were greeted almost immediately with digital Molotov cocktails. The
hacker collective that calls itself Anonymous attacked the Web sites of the
United States Justice Department and several major entertainment companies and
trade groups in retaliation for the seizure of Megaupload.
The case against Megaupload comes at a charged time, a day after broad online
protests against a pair of antipiracy bills in Congress: the Stop Online Piracy
Act, or SOPA, in the House of Representatives, and the Protect Intellectual
Property Act, or PIPA, in the Senate. The bills would give United States
authorities expanded powers to crack down on foreign sites suspected of piracy.
But technology companies and civil liberties groups say that the powers are too
broadly defined and could effectively result in censorship.
Four of the seven people, including the site’s founder, Kim Dotcom (born Kim
Schmitz), were arrested Friday in New Zealand; the three others remain at large.
Each of the seven people — who the indictment said were members of a criminal
group it called Mega Conspiracy — is charged with five counts of copyright
infringement and conspiracy. The charges could result in more than 20 years in
As part of the crackdown, about 20 search warrants were executed in the United
States and in eight other countries, including New Zealand. About $50 million in
assets were also seized, as well as a number of servers and 18 domain names that
formed Megaupload’s network of file-sharing sites.
The police arrived at Dotcom Mansion in Auckland on Friday morning in two
helicopters. Mr. Dotcom, a 37-year-old with dual Finnish and German citizenship,
retreated into a safe room, and the police had to cut their way in. He was
eventually arrested with a firearm close by that the police said appeared to be
a shortened shotgun.
“It was definitely not as simple as knocking at the front door,” said Grant
Wormald, a detective inspector.
The police said they seized 6 million New Zealand dollars, or $4.8 million, in
luxury vehicles, including a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe and a pink 1959
Cadillac. They also seized art and electronic equipment and froze 11 million
dollars in cash in various accounts.
Mr. Dotcom and three others arrested in New Zealand appeared in court Friday
afternoon and were denied bail. Extradition proceedings will continue Monday.
The police said the other three arrested in New Zealand were Finn Batato, 38, a
German citizen and resident; Mathias Ortmann, 40, a German citizen who is a
resident of Hong Kong; and Bram van der Kolk, 29, a Dutch citizen who is a
resident of New Zealand.
The police said they were still searching Dotcom Mansion on Friday evening.
Ira P. Rothken, a lawyer for Megaupload, said by telephone Thursday that
“Megaupload believes the government is wrong on the facts, wrong on the law.”
On Wednesday, Google and Wikipedia joined dozens of sites in political protests
by blacking out some content and explaining their arguments against the
The group Anonymous, which has previously set its sights on PayPal, Sony and
major media executives, was more blunt in its response. The group disabled the
Justice Department’s site for a time, and it also claimed credit for shutting
down sites for the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording
Industry Association of America, two of the most powerful media lobbies in
Washington, as well as those of Universal Music Group, the largest music label,
and BMI, which represents music publishers.
“Let’s just say, for #SOPA supporters their #SOPAblackout is today,” Anonymous
wrote in a Twitter post. In an e-mail, a spokesman for the group said it was
responsible for the Web attacks.
The Megaupload case touches on many of the most controversial aspects of the
anti-piracy debate. Megaupload and similar sites, like RapidShare and MediaFire,
are often promoted as convenient ways to transfer large files legitimately; a
recent promotional video had major stars like Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas
singing Megaupload’s praises. But media companies say the legitimate uses are a
veil concealing extensive theft.
Mr. Dotcom has made himself a visible target. He splits his time between Hong
Kong and New Zealand and casts himself in flamboyant YouTube videos. His role as
one of the most prominent Web locker operators has earned him a half-joking
nickname in Hollywood: Dr. Evil.
According to the indictment, he took in $42 million from Megaupload’s operations
The indictment against Megaupload, which stems from a federal inquiry that began
two years ago, was handed down by a grand jury in Virginia two weeks ago but was
not unsealed until Thursday.
It quotes extensively from correspondence among the defendants, who work for
Megaupload and its related sites. The correspondence, the indictment says, shows
that the operators knew the site contained unauthorized content.
The indictment cites an e-mail from last February, for example, in which three
members of the group discussed an article about how to stop the government from
seizing domain names.
The Megaupload case is unusual, said Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at George
Washington University, in that federal prosecutors obtained the private e-mails
of Megaupload’s operators in an effort to show they were operating in bad faith.
“The government hopes to use their private words against them,” Mr. Kerr said.
“This should scare the owners and operators of similar sites.”
Nicole Perlroth and Jonathan Hutchison contributed reporting.
cloud-based digital music services like Spotify and Rhapsody, which stream
millions of songs but have struggled to sign up large numbers of paying users,
being friended by Facebook could prove to be a mixed blessing.
This week, according to numerous media and technology executives, Facebook will
unveil a media platform that will allow people to easily share their favorite
music, television shows and movies, effectively making the basic profile page a
primary entertainment hub.
Facebook, which has more than 750 million users, has not revealed its plans, but
the company is widely expected to announce the service at its F8 developers’
conference in San Francisco on Thursday.
By putting them in front of millions of users, Facebook’s new platform could
introduce the music services to vast new audiences. “If it works the way it is
supposed to, it would be the nirvana of interoperability,” said Ted Cohen, a
consultant and former digital executive for a major label.
But the new plan will ratchet up the competitive pressure on these fledgling
services, forcing them to offer more free music as enticements to new users.
According to the media and technology executives, who spoke on condition of
anonymity because the deals were private, Facebook has made agreements with a
number of media companies to develop a way for a user’s profile page to display
whatever entertainment he is consuming on those outside services. Links that
appear on a widget or tab, or as part of a user’s news feed, would point a
curious friend directly to the content.
Spotify and Rhapsody, along with their smaller competitors Rdio, MOG and the
French company Deezer, are said to be among the 10 or so music services that
will be part of the service at its introduction; Vevo, the music video site, is
another. A Facebook spokesman declined to comment, and media executives
cautioned that details of the plan could change.
Spotify is the largest of these services with more than 10 million users,
according to its most recent reporting. The service began in Europe in 2008 and
arrived in the United States in July, after protracted negotiations with the
major record labels over its “freemium” structure, which lets people listen to
music free, with advertising, or pay $5 or $10 a month for an ad-free version.
Rdio and MOG, which charge $5 and $10 a month for subscriptions, announced free
versions last week in an effort to compete with Spotify. And Rhapsody, whose
service costs $10 and $15 a month, has just introduced an array of social
features centered on Facebook.
The companies declined to answer questions about Facebook’s media platform. And
David Hyman, MOG’s founder and chief executive, said that the development of his
company’s free tier far predated Spotify’s entry into the United States.
But Mr. Hyman said that the change was being made to reduce the “friction” a
nonsubscriber experiences when following a link posted by a paying user. Instead
of hearing the song, the nonsubscriber would reach a page asking to sign up with
a credit card — an annoyance for many potential customers.
“In the Internet world, any minuscule piece of friction blows people’s minds,”
MOG provides new users with a “gas tank” of free music — supported by
advertising — that increases with that user’s social activity on the site, like
sharing playlists or inviting friends. Rdio’s free music will come ad-free.
Neither company would say exactly how much free music would be made available.
“We don’t want to force you to look at or listen to ads that will distract you
from enjoying music,” said Carter Adamson, Rdio’s chief operating officer, “and
we don’t want you to spam your friends to get more free.”
But even free music requires royalty payments to record companies — typically
some fraction of a cent per stream — and some investors and technology
executives are concerned that Facebook’s platform may bring in large numbers of
users who are willing to listen to some free music but are not being given much
incentive to subscribe. That might make success more difficult for services that
have less favorable deals with record companies.
David Pakman, a partner in the venture capital firm Venrock and a former chief
executive of the digital service eMusic, also said that instead of giving
smaller companies a boost, the mathematics of Facebook’s hundreds of millions of
links might simply allow the largest service to dominate all the others.
“It favors the big over the small,” Mr. Pakman said. “It’s a good thing for all
services in that it lets them all participate. But the small guys will lose
network effects, and the big guys will gain it.”
Spotify has not updated its user numbers since arriving in the United States,
but music executives say it quickly drew more than 100,000 customers to its paid
MOG and Rdio have not reported their numbers, but music executives say their
tallies are well under 100,000.
Not all the services involved in the Facebook platform are going free. Rhapsody,
which was founded 10 years ago and has 800,000 subscribers, is sticking to its
monthly subscription rate, said Jon Irwin, the company’s president.
“Our belief is that the cost of the content cannot be fully offset by the
advertising dollars you can generate,” Mr. Irwin said, “and that the subsequent
conversion of somebody to a paying subscriber because they’ve been able to
listen to content for free on a desktop is not at a level that supports the
losses you’ll incur on the advertising side.”
Mr. Irwin also believes that Facebook will further intensify the competition
among the cloud services, and that Spotify and his own company will have the
“It’s going to be hard for the players not at scale to survive,” he said.
“You’re looking at a two-horse race.”