Google has found itself embroiled in a high-profile dispute pitting the traditional western value of free speech against Islam's strict proscription against blasphemy.
The company confirmed today that it "temporarily" blocked YouTube users in Libya and Egypt from accessing a YouTube video trailer from an amateur movie sharply critical of the Prophet Muhammad. And Afghanistan retaliated by unilaterally blocking all of YouTube for its citizens.
Those restrictions came less than a day after the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in an attack by Muslim protesters. Protesters also entered the U.S. Embassy grounds in Cairo.
The tense situation also prompted the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to backpedal from her earlier ringing endorsement of free speech on the Internet. During a high-profile 2010 speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., she announced that "our government is committed to helping promote Internet freedom."
Today, however, Clinton said that the U.S. "deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others" -- even though the anti-Muhammad video is fully protected by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo said, without mentioning it by name, that it "condemns" the film and suggested that its producers "abuse[d] the universal right of free speech," an apologia that quickly drew a rebuke from Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Neither the film nor the online video clip appears to be the cause of the Americans' death in Libya. U.S. officials told our colleagues at CBS News that this was not an out-of-control protest, but a well-executed assault by a well-armed group that took advantage of the demonstration against the anti-Muslim film. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said "there appeared to be military maneuvers approaching the facility."
Google provided CNET this statement and declined to answer further questions:
We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what's OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video--which is widely available on the Web--is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt we have temporarily restricted access in both countries. Our hearts are with the families of the people murdered in yesterday's attack in Libya.
A man initially identified as the writer and director of the low-budget "Innocence of Muslims" video, Sam Bacile, said yesterday that the film, which depicts Muhammad as a fraud, was intended as a provocative political statement against Islam. By this evening, though, the Associated Press was reporting that Bacile was not an Israeli-born Jew, but a California Coptic Christian named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.
The Internet's free-wheeling nature, combined with the sheer volume of posts to social networks and video-sharing sites -- about 72 hours of video every minute are uploaded to YouTube -- have dramatically increased the odds of collisions between free speech and conservative religious sensibilities, especially Arab Muslims' sensitivity toward depictions of Muhammad's face. (In Iran, Turkey, and central Asia, depictions of Muhammad are more common.)
In May, the Pakistani government blocked access to Twitter over potential "blasphemous" caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. Two years earlier, Pakistan temporarily pulled the plug on connections to Facebook after a Seattle cartoonist's satirical suggestion that Thursday be dubbed "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day." And then there was the controversy over the cartoons in a Danish newspaper in 2005.
In Saudi Arabia, blogger Hamza Kashghari was arrested in February on blasphemy charges for daring to criticize Islam. Even the Vatican managed to persuade the Italian government to shutter Web sites that allegedly posted blasphemies against God and the Virgin Mary.
Disclosure: McCullagh is married to a Google employee not involved with YouTube.