UK gov wants to censor legal but "unsavoury" YouTube content

Filed Under: Featured, Google

UK censors YouTubeLast week, the Financial Times revealed that Google has given British security the power to quickly yank terrorist content offline.

The UK government doesn't want to stop there, though - what it really wants is the power to pull "unsavoury" content, regardless of whether it's actually illegal - in other words, it wants censorship power.

The news outlet quoted UK's security and immigration minister, James Brokenshire, who said that the government must do more to deal with material "that may not be illegal but certainly is unsavoury and may not be the sort of material that people would want to see or receive."

He further told in a statement that the targeting of content is part of the government's fight against terror:

Terrorist propaganda online has a direct impact on the radicalisation of individuals and we work closely with the internet industry to remove terrorist material hosted in the UK or overseas.

Brokenshire says that the government is also gung-ho about options wherein social media sites tweak their algorithms to keep nasty content from popping its head up at all, or at least get to the point that such content is served up with more balanced material.

Of specific concern are Britons getting radicalised by travelling to take part in the ongoing Syrian conflict, Wired reports.

The Home Office told Wired that any videos flagged by the Metropolitan Police's Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) for review have been found to be in breach of counter-terrorism laws, with 29,000 such having been removed across the web since February 2010.

Brokenshire's comments came in the context of an interview around the UK government's alleged "super flagger" status - i.e., the power to request that masses of clips are pulled on a large-scale basis instead of flagging individual videos, one by one, that breach guidelines.

The Home Office told Wired that the CTIRU doesn't, actually, have super flagger status, in spite of wide news reports to that effect. Rather, it's risen to the rank of Trusted Flagger, which designates users that regularly, correctly flag questionable content.

Google confirmed to the Financial Times that the Home Office has been given the powerful flagging permissions on YouTube but that Google itself still has the final say on what stays and what goes.

What goes is definitely content that incites violence, as the FT quotes YouTube:

We have a zero-tolerance policy on YouTube towards content that incites violence. Our community guidelines prohibit such content and our review teams respond to flagged videos around the clock, routinely removing videos that contain hate speech or incitement to commit violent acts.

To increase the efficiency of this process, we have developed an invite-only program that gives users who flag videos regularly tools to flag content at scale.

Jaani Riordan, a barrister specialising in technology litigation, told Wired that the concept of government going beyond takedown of illegal content to compel takedown of undesirable material is censorship, plain and simple:

It is [censorship]... Removal of lawful material by government simply because it offends governmental or public policy is without justification. Conversely, a private enterprise, such as YouTube, would always remain free to remove content which offends its Terms of Use or other policies, and there is very limited if any recourse against it for doing so.

XXX. Image courtesy of ShutterstockThe push against "unsavoury" content is in line with the UK's pressure on service providers to provide filters in an ever-increasing range of subject material, starting with child abuse content and expanding to include pornography, with the 2012 Online Safety Bill stating that ISPs and mobile telcos should provide a porn-free internet connection by default.

Wired points out that if, in fact, the government were to take the reins and actually force YouTube to remove content, it would be breaching Article 10(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights, related to the right to freedom of expression.

What's your take? Should legal content glorifying terrorism be yanked, whether it's legal under countries' laws or not?

Is tweaking algorithms to keep it from rising high in search results - in effect, smothering content - more desirable than outright deletion?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image of XXX courtesy of Shutterstock.

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19 Responses to UK gov wants to censor legal but "unsavoury" YouTube content

  1. Ralph Fendlemyer · 534 days ago

    If it's legal, leave it. I think this is more about the government not wanting people to see what it's doing in other countries when it invades and occupies them

    • 4caster · 533 days ago

      Secrecy is often essential in military activities. We don't want Youtube informing the enemy and costing British or allied lives, do we? It's a good job Youtube was not around on D-day!

      • RichardD · 532 days ago

        And revealing military secrets is presumably illegal.

        I don't think anyone's arguing that illegal content shouldn't be removed; it's the government's insistence that they should have the power to remove legal content that's causing concern.

  2. Of course Conservative ministers might find opposition videos "unsavoury".

    They also regularly complain about Channel 4 Despatches and BBC Panorama; surely it is unsavoury when they don't follow the government line - or raise an uncomfortable truth?

    Was the exposure of the horse-meat scandal unsavoury?

    "Brokenshire says that the government is also gung-ho about options wherein social media sites tweak their algorithms to keep nasty content from popping its head up at all, or at least get to the point that such content is served up with more balanced material. "

    So if we twitter that we don't like some government policy ("nasty content" in the government view?), our tweets will not be served up unless and until government supporters have had a chance to post "balancing tweets"?

    • also what put of this post said anything about opposition videos? facts plz

      • RichardD · 532 days ago

        The facts are simple:

        * The UK government wants the power to remove legal content which they find "unsavoury".

        * Based on past experience, any power given to the government will be abused for their own purposes.

        * Videos which criticize the government might harm their reputation.

        * Therefore, the government will almost certainly abuse their new powers of censorship to silence any dissenting voices.

    • Guy · 533 days ago

      The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

      People getting hoity toity about videos that they'd never watch anyway seems a little too much of principle over pragmatism.

      I accept the slippery slope argument, but the UK is not China and Google is not a pushover.

      • RichardD · 532 days ago

        "... the UK is not China ..."

        Not yet. We certainly seem to be heading that way, though.

        • michaerl1 · 531 days ago

          now your just being paranoid

          • RichardD · 530 days ago

            Says the person using two anonymous accounts to post comments here.

            I seem to recall that the Chinese government employs people to post pro-government comments on web-sites. If I were being paranoid, I might suspect that the same thing is happening here.

  3. David · 533 days ago

    If content is illegal in a specific country, it must be removed or blocked in that country even if it's legal elsewhere. Similarly, if content contravenes the Ts&Cs of the Service, it must be removed. Anything else is freedom of speech within the bounds of the law and any convention on human rights. This applies regardless of the medium, not just the Internet.

  4. Deramin · 533 days ago

    The problem with saying "unsavory" content should be removed is that everyone has a different opinion of what is unsavory. I find quite a lot of what politicians say to be unsavory, especially ones saying their morals should supersede that of their countrymen.

  5. Jack Wilborn · 533 days ago

    Freedom of speech is one of our cornerstones in the US. I'm sure it weighs heavily with any nation. We let our legislators convince us to be vigilant with terrorism, and now they are bugging ours and everybody else's phones. I understand the NSA gathers 21 Gig of data per hour, seems comprehensible. I hope the Brits keep the Internet free and not fall for the game of let us keep an eye on it for you!


  6. Patrick McDonald · 533 days ago

    I must agree with Deramin. "Unsavoury" is too vauge and subjective a term to figure in national policy. Commercials shown in Cinemas touting tar sands oil production are in my opinion obscenities, yet they are fully subsidised by the Harper government in Ottawa.

  7. Josh · 533 days ago

    Censorship should be illegal in my very honest opinion....

  8. goat · 532 days ago

    Anyone else disgusted that we are still throwing away freedoms and liberties in the name of terrorism? Think about it, how bad has terrorism actually effected these countries?

  9. Tired of the lies & violence · 531 days ago

    If the government was truly representing "my" interests & the concerns I have for my children, Iraq would not have been invaded for oil & instead of pummeling Afghanistan with violence- education and development resources would have been poured in. How can a government be trusted in determining what their citizens have the ability/right to see/read, in the attempt to form an opinion based upon fact/truth instead of lies shared by puppet governments voicing the illicit plans of the elite 1%? I prefer to retain my right to think critically for myself.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.