Middle East Violence Tests Internet Freedom & Dissent

Google’s refusal to comply with a White House request to review its policy of keeping up the controversial trailer for the film Innocence of Muslims has put a spotlight on the possible limits of online speech.  It all started when filmmaker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian, posted the trailer to his film on YouTube in July.  Apparently, someone in Egypt saw the trailer and it was then broadcast on Egyptian television a few days ago, which instigated the subsequent global violence and the death of four American diplomats allegedly at the hands of Al Qaeda.

It is interesting that the same social media that was used to support the victories of the Arab Spring last year is now being blamed by some of the same people in that movement for supporting anti-Muslim sentiments.  Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that many Muslim countries are still having a hard time grasping free speech and dissent.

…These are people who were born and raised in dictatorships. They are accustomed to thinking that a government controls its citizens — that a film or documentary cannot be produced without government approval. For decades, this has been the reality of their lives, and they strongly believe that the Western world and its citizens have a similarly controlling relationship between individuals and government.

In light of this assumption, they hold the U.S. government responsible for the tacky and distasteful film produced by a right-wing Muslimphobe.

Little wonder, then, that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has called for the prosecution by the U.S government of the filmmakers, and Egypt’s top cleric, Mufti Ali Goma, has called on the United Nations to forbid denigration of faiths. Morsy studied in the United States and Ali Goma regularly visits the West on the interfaith circuit, yet both men don’t yet grasp that religious freedom and the freedom of expression are inextricably linked in America.

It is hard for younger Arabs not born into freedom to understand how individual liberty works in real life

While we find the content of the trailer to be extremely offensive, Global Wire Associates supports Google’s decision to not take down the video.  We strongly believe in freedom of speech and the right to dissent, no matter how offensive that speech may be.

Rachel Whetstone, senior vice president for communications and public policy at Google, wrote this in 2007 about its censorship policy.

…At Google we have a bias in favor of people’s right to free expression in everything we do. But we also recognize that freedom of expression can’t be — and shouldn’t be — without some limits. The difficulty is in deciding where those boundaries are drawn. For a company like Google with services in more than 100 countries — all with different national laws and cultural norms — it’s a challenge we face many times every day…

…One type of content, while legal everywhere, may be almost universally unacceptable in one region yet viewed as perfectly fine in another. We are passionate about our users so we try to take into account local cultures and needs — which vary dramatically around the world — when developing and implementing our global product policies.

Dealing with controversial content is one of the biggest challenges we face as a company. We don’t pretend to have all the right answers or necessarily to get every judgment right. But we do try hard to think things through from first principles, to be as transparent as possible about how we make decisions, and to keep reviewing and debating our policies. After all, the right to disagree is a sign of a healthy society.

So it came as a bit of a surprise – and disappointment – that instead of expressing their outrage with the trailer on social media, many people used their anger through violent attacks.  Luckily there have been many Arab bloggers who have come out against the violence going on in their respective countries, and called for a more civilized way of dissenting.

Nonetheless, with freedom comes responsibility and sometimes consequences, and Nakoula could be held accountable for the violence that has ensued.  As it stands right now, there are technically no legal grounds to prosecute Nakoula.  However, in 2010 Nakoula was sent to federal prison for 21 months for bank fraud using stolen identities and Social Security numbers, including one belonging to a 6-year-old child.  Upon his release in June 2011, he was ordered not to use computers or the Internet for five years without approval from his probation officer.  Nakoula began filmming Innocence of Muslims only a few weeks after being released from a halfway house.  Based on this information, there is a good chance Nakoula could be going back to jail for violating the terms of his probation by simply posting the trailer on YouTube using the fake name Sam Bacile.

Posted in Films and filmmaking, Global, Middle East, Video, YouTube and tagged , , , , , , , .

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