September 14, 2012

YouTube Blocking the Anti-Islamic Video: Censorship or Responsible Stewardship?

Piece by piece -- and thanks to the Internet with fair speed now -- the provenance of the hideous anti-Islamic video playing a role in current Mideast violence is becoming increasingly clear.

It is now obvious that the amateurish production -- given the known history of the region -- was created specifically to instigate violence. But the more we learn, the more evil the undertaking is revealed to be.

The apparent producer, operating under a long list of assumed names, appears to have an extensive criminal record for fraud and other offenses, including multiple prison incarcerations.

When the current violence brought his video into public focus, he initially reportedly falsely identified himself as Jewish and Israeli, in an obvious and insidious attempt to trigger violence against those groups. Apparently he is neither -- it is currently reported that he is actually an Egyptian Coptic Christian, engendering fears in that group of possible retaliations.

Actors in the production have reported that at no time were they told that the subject matter related to Mohammad. Rather, they were hired for a production about life in the ancient world, and the main character was called "Master George" -- in retrospect just the right number of syllables for dubbing in "Mohammad" later. And in fact, the actors assert that all of the inflammatory dialogue was dubbed in post-production without their knowledge nor consent.

It's difficult to imagine a more sordid scheme to inflame known passions and trigger terrible violence.

It is inappropriate at this time to argue about whether or not such a film should actually trigger such reactions. Comparisons to comedic, satiric, or even controversial dramatized films or television programs regarding various religions are largely orthogonal now. None of the examples being mentioned in some quarters were totally without any artistic or scholarly merit -- unlike this production -- nor were they designed (as the video was) specifically to set fire to an area of the world already on an emotional knife's edge for many reasons.

The Internet's question of the moment appears to be whether or not Google's YouTube was justified in targeting blocking of access to the video in question (specifically in Libya and Egypt) where the related violence has been most serious so far. Some observers, including people I much respect, have been critical of this decision.

I'm forced to respectfully disagree with those critics.

Anyone who knows me knows that you'll be hard pressed to find anyone more dedicated to freedom of speech than I am. And I've long asserted that attempts to effectively censor material on the Internet are doomed to failure and often counterproductive even to the stated intentions of the would-be censors.

But there are no absolutes in life other than death, and here we have a prime example.

It's a well-known principle that purposely and falsely yelling "fire" in a crowded theater is not an acceptable exercise of free speech.

But if a natural gas leak is feeding the flames in a burning building, putting lives genuinely at risk, it can be entirely appropriate to temporarily cut off that gas supply. It may not stop the fire entirely, but it will stop feeding the conflagration. This doesn't mean you're cutting off the gas for the entire world. It doesn't mean you'll never turn the gas back on to that building again after it is repaired.

It simply means you're taking steps to help save lives right now in an extraordinary situation.

This in my view is what Google has responsibly done in this case.

I've worked enough with Google to have some inkling about the rigorous discussions that internally drive Google policies, especially regarding controversial or particularly complex issues. And I feel safe in assuming that their decision to block the video in those specific countries for now, was only made after due deliberation, keeping in mind Google's long-standing goal of maximizing the availability of content while staying in accordance with relevant laws, and their working to achieve the greatest possible public transparency regarding any related actions.

There will be time later to argue the philosophical questions surrounding this evil video, its impacts, and the reactions that have occurred.

For now though, our number one concern should be minimizing the loss of human life. We need to help the situation evolve toward a state where reasoned discussion can again take place, and the broader issues brought back into focus.

Google is doing the right thing by deploying tightly limited blocking of specific content in this emergency situation. I would do exactly the same thing.

There's an old saying that "the exception proves the rule" -- and in situations like this, knowing when those exceptions need to be employed is a hallmark of being a caring and thoughtful member not only of the Internet community, but also of the even larger global community itself.


Posted by Lauren at September 14, 2012 12:06 PM | Permalink
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