The White House has acknowledged pressuring Google over an amateur anti-Islam video that is legally protected under U.S. law.
A White House spokesman didn't immediately respond to questions from CNET asking for details, but any phone call to YouTube would be more politically symbolic than anything else. YouTube executives were not only well aware of the video that was uploaded, but other national governments have demanded its removal in far more emphatic terms.
Google confirmed on Wednesday that it "temporarily" blocked YouTube users in Libya and Egypt from accessing a YouTube video trailer from a rather bizarre amateur movie critical of the Prophet Muhammad. Afghanistan apparently retaliated by blocking YouTube, and The Wall Street Journal reported today that Google made the video off-limits in India as well.
The pressure from senior U.S. government officials has raised eyebrows among civil libertarians because the anti-Muhammad video is shielded by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech and expression.
"When the White House rings you up and asks you to look into something content-related, that's what we call 'regulation by raised eyebrow,'" says Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center. "It's censorship through intimidation -- and without any due process."
Twitter erupted with condemnation of the White House's move. One post said "the news headline 'White House Asks YouTube To Review Video' should scare every so-called 'internet freedom' YouTuber." Another: "The White House asked YouTube to review or delete a video? A terrible 1st Amend. violating idea, regardless of content."
Complicating the matter for Google, which has tried for years to balance a commitment to freedom of speech with the task of complying with national laws, is how politically incendiary the situation is in the Middle East. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in an attack by Muslim protesters this week, and a mob today breached the walls of the U.S. Embassy compound in Tunisia's capital.
A spokesman for YouTube did not respond to questions this morning. We'll update this story if we receive a response.