In September, two Japanese coast guard ships clashed with a Chinese fishing vessel in disputed waters, intensifying relations between the two powers. Japan kept video of the incident under wraps, to avoid further inflaming tensions, but the footage leaked on YouTube Friday, sparking a rushed investigation by authorities to soften potential blowback. It marks yet another international incident where Google has been thrust into the position of unfortunate middleman.
Only last week, a Nicaraguan military unit accidentally invaded Costa Rican territory. The reason? An error in Google Maps. This past summer, YouTube was at the center of an Israeli-Palestinian conflict after a flotilla raid turned deadly. Israeli Defense Forces used the video service to upload a play-by-play analysis of the incident in an attempt to justify its actions. In both cases, Google was inadvertently catapulted into foreign affairs; the incident between Japan and China is no different.
Google doesn't perceive itself as the middleman, rather as the platform that enables the content to be posted, a spokesperson tells Fast Company. And it's taken a strictly hands-off approach to such controversial content, leaving decisions to remove or intervene with content up to its policy and legal staff. YouTube, for example, does not pre-screen content. It has a global team monitoring flagged videos, and it typically takes Google less than an hour to respond to inappropriate content. And that doesn't mean YouTube won't support controversial or unpopular videos: In the marketplace of ideas, Google will only remove videos if they include nudity, violence, or drug abuse; have the potential to incite harm; or violate any other community guidelines. These guidelines are increasingly difficult for YouTube to parse.
A documentary on Michelangelo's David, for example, would be an exception to the rules against nudity, the source says. But when it comes to an incident like that between Japan and China, the guidelines become far hairier, even with clear policies related to inciting potential harm.
For its part, YouTube and Google can't always know in advance how severe collateral damage might be from a video they consider mostly harmless.
Even as AFP reports that relations between Japan and China have plunged to "their lowest point in years," Google remains committed to its policies and its community of free expression. So while Japanese prosecutors have hurried to find the source of the video leak and Prime Minister Naoto Kan personally apologized for the "sloppy" video security, the footage itself has remained on YouTube, racking up hundreds of thousands of views. [Ed: We've hosted it here in case it gets taken down.]
"Every day on YouTube, billions of people watch, upload, share, and comment on hundreds of millions of videos," a YouTube spokesperson tells Fast Company. "They count on the site to learn about new ideas and viewpoints, and to debate their opinions with others. We believe that more information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for people."