Google Supports Free Speech in China … but not elsewhere

Google has taken a firm position on censorship in China, yet, ironically, Google willingly and actively censors. It censors so as to conform to local laws, but it also censors deliberately and voluntarily by restricting speech on, for instance, YouTube (fully owned by Google). A recent example of the breadth of censorship YouTube practices is the removal or restriction of access to several videos, which have been exhibited in major art institutions, and whose creator is a pioneer of experimental film and video art.

The videos, by Amy Greenfield, an internationally exhibited artist, were removed by YouTube because their subject is the female body. As the artist – like many others – was using YouTube to host the videos she had embedded into her website, YouTube’s censorship resulted in her work becoming inaccessible even through her own website.

Greenfield is not a “pornographer” however you may define the term – quite the contrary – her work has been shown at MoMA and the Whitney and has received multiple prestigious grants (if in doubt, you can see the videos and judge for yourself – the links are below). Film scholar David Sterritt has said of her, that she is “…today’s most important practitioner of experimental film-dance” (Cineaste Magazine). Yet the mere presence of an unclothed female body was enough to make the videos unpalatable to YouTube.

You Tube’s community guidelines ban pornography and sexually explicit content, animal abuse, drug abuse, bomb making, gratuitous violence, gross-out stuff, and speech demeaning to a group based on race, ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status and sexual/gender identity. This encompasses a rather wide swath of material, especially when you consider that the decisions in most of these cases are highly subjective. While a brief glance at the above categories of speech may result in a shrug of the shoulders and a “who needs those,” the practical application of those guidelines may leave YouTube as the domain of funniest home videos and cable show re-runs.

Let’s consider nudity, for instance, which was the reason that Amy Greenfield’s films were excluded from the populous ranks of YouTube videos: While nudity, when it is not in a sexually explicit/porn context, should be fine according to YouTube’s guidelines, the supplementary “guideline tips” suggest you err on the side of caution: “most nudity is not allowed,” they specify. The only exception is for “some educational, documentary and scientific content, but only if that is the sole purpose of the video and it is not gratuitously graphic.” Art is conspicuously absent from the list – clearly you can’t trust artists to use nudity in non-gratuitous ways. It could well be that, for the young men judging content on YouTube nudity is always sexual, but does the perceived eroticism of a nude mean that most of the world’s art heritage should be kept out of the public eye?

As more and more of us are becoming members of populous communities like YouTube, where we store the videos we embed in our websites, share and look for information, look at artwork and listen to music are we to submit to puritan community guidelines? How disturbing is it that YouTube allows a documentary on breast cancer, but removes videos of an Amy Greenfield’s female body ecstatically merging with elements! Is the female body only “safe” when it is diseased? (And is it only the perfect body that can be sexual? But that is another subject.)

For all of their pronouncements in favor of free speech, Google and other Internet intermediaries are fast becoming the new arbiters of morality – and setting the tone of what is acceptable and what is not. There is no First Amendment to protect our speech in such communities, but that is why it is much more important to get involved and express our outrage when artistic expression using a female body is booted off the site – or put in a special X-rated section – as pornographic and offensive.

For an example of the rather unbelievable lengths YouTube goes to so as to “protect” its “community” you can look at the following video, which was “removed for inappropriateness”

*These were the videos YouTube decided were “inappropriate” ( all by Amy Greenfield):

ELEMENT(1973) (RESTRICTED ON YOUTUBE AS “INAPPROPRIATE FOR SOME AUDIENCES”), of which Deborah Jowitt wrote, “Like a moving sculpture being continually being molded by the subject herself from dark, wet clay seen in the high relief of dazzling light, Greenfield rolls and seethes and plunges in a field of mud, her hair, her face not just slathered with mud but become part of it…I am impressed. ” (Village Voice)

TIDES (1982) (ENTIRELY REMOVED FROM YOUTUBE). Introduced by a quote from Isadora Duncan’s essay, The Dance of The Future, “she will dance a nakedness no longer at war with spirituality and intelligence”, Tides proceeds to visualize a woman “first rolling into the heart of the waves, then moving with, against, under them, until her whole body shouts with joy.” (Edinburgh Film Festival)

WILDFIRE (2002) (ENTIRELY REMOVED FROM YOUTUBE). Beginning and ending with Thomas Edison’s 1894 Annabelle Dances, “Four female dancers clad only in flames respond to Annabelle’s solo, their movements condensed with the aid of digital effects, creating an ode to the female body” (Berlin Film Festival), Wildfire, colorized an intense rainbow blaze, builds from slow motion then layered, reversed, speeded to create a wildfire explosion of joyous female energy.

LIGHT OF THE BODY(2004) (ENTIRELY REMOVED FROM YOUTUBE). Video from Greenfield’s multimedia performance,  Raw-Edged Women (presented at the American Museum Of The Moving Image and Anthology Film Archives), is transformed by increasingly complex digital techniques to eventually etherealize the torch-wielding topless dancer into a cinema of corporeal light revealing the spirit within the body.

About Blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship

Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
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8 Responses to Google Supports Free Speech in China … but not elsewhere

  1. Malcolm Boura, British Naturism says:

    It is cultural and immoral imperialism of the worst sort. They are imposing US prejudices on the rest of the world and contributing to real and substantial harm. I think it is only a question of time before they end up in front of the European Court.

    Google is encouraging attitudes which are known to result in widespread and often serious harm. Try comparing the teenage pregnancy rate for the USA with that for say Denmark or The Netherlands. Then think long and hard about the differences in attitudes which result in such enormous differences in outcomes. Prudery is child abuse with good intentions.

  2. We live in a prudish culture. Violence is okay, but nude bodies offensive?
    Jeeze louise.

  3. lili white says:

    we’ve got to get the work/concept of “art” back into the arena

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  7. nadjonion says:

    This is the first article I read about China/Google/censorship that makes sense to me.

    This winter, when the Google vs. China controversy arose, something didn’t quite make sense to me.

    What did exactly Google mean by ‘censorship’?

    YouTube, the second most visited website ever, notoriously belong to Google. The company has in more than one occasion removed clips defined pornographic and that had been uploaded under the name of famous teenage celebrities (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8061979.stm).

    This I call censorship, as I am used to see pictures of porn star Cicciolina nude and in explicitly sexual poses, as well as the sculpture of her partner Jeff Koons’ sex, in Tate Modern. Meanwhile, the action of the ‘perverted’ YouTube user can be read as a form of resistance, critique, irony and in many ways it nothing represents but the freedom of expression of an individual.

    So, definitely, let’s not look at China to understand censorship, because we have it here in the West too.

  8. Pingback: Censorship and International Women’s Day « Blogging Censorship

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