In March 2011, social networking giant Facebook removed a page calling for a third intifada in Israel/Palestine, on the grounds that it called for violence and thus was in violation of the site’s terms of service. As a result of the ban, hundreds of new, similar pages sprung up, a perfect example of what has become known as the Streisand Effect: A phenomenon in which censorship creates an even greater proliferation of speech.
This past week, YouTube faced a similar situation after a video – created by an Egyptian-American Copt, uploaded to YouTube, and later shown on Egyptian TV – insulting the Prophet Muhammad sparked riots in the Middle East. Though YouTube determined that the video did not violate their terms of service, the company chose to block access to it “temporarily” in Egypt and Libya, in the hopes of quelling the tide of violence.
Though in the former case no uprising occurred, the latter exemplifies just how easy it is, via social media, to spark a riot. Just as Egyptians used Facebook to call for the January 25, 2011 protests that eventually succeeded in ousting Hosni Mubarak, a hate-filled California man has succeeded, by uploading a short video to YouTube, in causing angst and violence throughout numerous Muslim countries.
It should be a given that the same technologies used for social change can also be used for less ideal purposes.
In our modern world, the internet is – for the approximately 32 per cent of individuals globally who have access to it, anyway – one of the few things that unites us. We no longer live in an age where something published in the New York Times reaches only an American audience, and perhaps a few expats in fancy hotels abroad; rather, when Thomas Friedman writes something absurd about Egypt in his column, it’s a matter of hours or even minutes until the Cairene Twitterati are poking fun. In that same vein, something posted to YouTube in Cairo can go viral in California within hours and vice versa.
While in some ways this is unifying, even equalising, it can also be dangerous. The world saw just how dangerous this week when the video made by an Egyptian-American Copt in California reached the airwaves in Egypt, resulting in sometimes violent riots. Call it the virality of protest.
Access to information, fragmented
YouTube’s solution in this case – to block access in Libya and Egypt and later, by legal request, in several other Muslim countries – might appear to make sense but ultimately furthers what has been called the “Balkanisation of the Internet”, whereby one’s view of information differs depending on the nation-state in which they currently reside.
Ultimately, this too is dangerous in the long term. When our access to information differs by our location, we cannot be on equal footing. When Saudi Arabia blocks searches for the word “breast”, for example, it disadvantages women in that country who might be searching for “breast cancer” or other information on sexual health. Just as government propaganda puts individuals at a disadvantage, colouring their views on the world, so too does censorship, allowing us only a limited view of what others believe.
Of course, to censor (or not) was in this case not an easy decision for YouTube. The company had to weigh the issue of public safety with that of free expression and, perhaps, concerns for the safety of their employees in Egypt. While in the short term, theirs may prove to be the right decision, in the long term, it most definitely is not. For not only will the company have to justify its decision every time it turns down a future demand, but by playing into the hands of those who commit violent acts, YouTube has erred on the side of apologia.
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Rights and responsibilities in a globalised world
Apart from the responsibility of companies to maintain an environment of free expression or the fight for the right to speech, no matter how vile, what is often forgotten is the responsibility of individuals to consider their fellow humans.
Both US President Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the content of the video in question, and rightly so, whilst still defending its creator’s right, under US law, to such hateful speech.
In the United States, that distinction is often lost. Defending one’s right to free speech does not mean defending the speech itself, nor does the right to free speech imply a responsibility to push the limits of that right. Instead, in an increasingly globalised world, we as humans have the responsibility to consider the implications of our online speech beyond our borders.
But at the same time, those who would take to the streets and riot over such a video should also remember that what is sacred to them is not sacred the world over. Though in this case it would seem that the video’s creator sought to intentionally foment conflict, there are numerous examples in which the act of speech represents a mere difference in cultural beliefs.
One great example of this lies in an old Facebook policy that prevented images of women breastfeeding. While in the United States public breastfeeding is a controversial subject, it is not so in Europe or, for that matter, even in more conservative countries. In that case, Facebook’s policy represented a uniquely American objection to a certain form of expression.
Another example follows the publication of the book The DaVinci Code. While the book did not provoke much public anger amongst Christians in the United States, where it was first published, it sparked protests in conservative parts of India, where the film version was banned for a two-month period.
These examples exemplify the challenges facing global platforms for speech. Apart from legal obligations – companies like Google are typically obliged to follow the local laws in countries where they have offices – companies may feel compelled to cater to cultural sensitivities. Though the recent case may be exceptional, it will not be the last.
Nevertheless, while we all have a responsibility to consider the ramifications of our speech, we also have a responsibility to protect freedom. Whereas in Mubarak’s Egypt, the same tactics used to muzzle the speech of leftists were once used to silence the Muslim Brotherhood, so too can calls for censorship of a certain type of speech later backfire on those calling for it.
A better approach to speech in ever-globalised environment would be to consider it in both legal and cultural contexts: That is, we must be vigilant in protecting the right to expression whilst also practicing responsibility in our words and actions.
Jillian York is director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork