The controversy regarding a crude anti-Muslim movie, which sparked off lethal violence in the Middle East, has highlighted how internet companies, most of whom are based in the United States, have become global arbiters of free speech, weighing up on complex issues that are traditionally
performed by courts, judges and, occasionally through international treaties, experts have said.
"Notice that Google has more power over this than either the Egyptian or the US government," the Sydney Morning Herald quoted Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor, as saying.
"Most free speech today has nothing to do with governments and everything to do with companies," he added.
After the anti-Muslim movie trailer spread like fire on the web and YouTube, breaking out protests in Egypt and Libya, Google was forced by White House officials to block access to the video in some of the Middle East countries.
However, days later, controversy over the 14-minute clip from The Innocence of Muslims was still roiling the Islamic world, with access blocked in Egypt, Libya, India, Indonesia and Afghanistan, the paper said.
In temporarily blocking the video in some countries, legal experts say, Google implicitly invoked the concept of "clear and present danger", which is a key exception to the broad first amendment protections in the US, where free speech is more jealously guarded than almost anywhere in the world.
The internet has been a boon to free speech, bringing access to information that governments have long tried to suppress. Google has positioned itself as an ally of such freedoms, as newspapers, book publishers and television stations long have, the paper said.
But because of the immediacy and global reach of internet companies, they face particular challenges in addressing a variety of legal restrictions, cultural sensitivities and, occasionally, national security concerns, it added.
"Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter now play this adjudicatory role on free speech," said Andrew McLaughlin, a former top policy official at Google who later worked for the Obama White House as deputy chief technology officer.
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