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Thanks to countless videos of the Iranian uprising now being streamed on its system, YouTube may suddenly seem to be at the center of international news. But from the company’s perspective, YouTube spokesman Scott Rubin insisted to me in a phone interview this afternoon, it’s more or less just another week at the office. The sudden rush of videos from Iran represent “the core of our mission,” he said. “It’s exciting to see YouTube being used this way, as it’s intended.” He also disputed a New York Times report from yesterday, which suggested the company had “relaxed its usual restrictions” against videos depicting violent imagery so that Iranians could freely upload footage that depicted the often brutal repression now going on in the streets of Tehran and other Persian cities.
In actuality, Rubin said, YouTube has always allowed exceptions for some violent videos that also contained educational, documentary or scientific value. In light of the uprising, he said, “We just pay special attention to make sure…everybody is understanding the policy.” To do that, the company reviews videos flagged by users as objectionable, taking in the whole context, including their titles, tags, and descriptions, along with the video themselves. From that perspective, he offered by way of example, raw cell phone footage depicting protesters running from police would probably be acceptable, but if it was mashed up to include gory close-ups in which “the intent was to shock or disgust,” it would come down. As far as the ideological content of the videos, Rubin made a point of saying, “We are completely agnostic on the politics of this.”
Rubin told me he didn’t know of variation in the number of videos that YouTube users have flagged as objectionable since the popular uprising and the government backlash began. Nor was he sure how many Iran-related videos have been uploaded since last week’s election. However, he did note that the service has dropped to 10 percent of its normal traffic in Iran itself. “We’re assuming we’re blocked” by the Iranian government, he said, though no official from the country has yet contacted the company. Then again, the Chinese government has been blocking YouTube since March, he noted, and no official from the People’s Republic has notified the service, either. Dealing with government censorship is just part of YouTube’s regular workload.