For Google last week, the decision was clear. An anti-Islamic video that provoked violence worldwide was not hate speech under its rules because it did not specifically incite violence against Muslims, even if it mocked their faith.
The White House was not so sure, and it asked Google to reconsider the determination, a request the company rebuffed.
Although the administration's request was unusual, for Google, it represented the kind of delicate balancing act that Internet companies confront every day.
These companies, which include communications media like Facebook and Twitter, write their own edicts about what kind of expression is allowed, things as diverse as pointed political criticism, nudity and notions as murky as hate speech.
And their employees work around the clock to check when users run afoul of their rules.
Google is not the only Internet company to grapple in recent days with questions involving the anti-Islamic video, which appeared on YouTube, which Google owns.
Facebook on Friday confirmed that it had blocked links to the video in Pakistan as it violates the blasphemy law.
A spokeswoman said Facebook had also removed a post that contained a threat to a US ambassador, after receiving a report from the State Department; Facebook has declined to say where the ambassador worked.
"Because these speech platforms are so important, the decisions they take become jurisprudence," said Andrew McLaughlin, who has worked for both Google and the White House.
Europe bans neo-Nazi speech, for instance, but courts there have also banned material that offends religious sensibilities of any group. Indian law frowns on speech that could threaten public order. (NYT)