An Egyptian court has ordered a one-month blockage of YouTube, the popular video-sharing site that more than 44% of internet users in the country use every day
, with more than 50% of them using it to follow political news. The administrative order came yesterday in response
to a lawsuit filed by a lawyer who objected to the Islamophobic, low-budget "film" trailer Innocence of Muslims
that provoked so much outrage across the Muslim world. This is a step in the wrong direction for a country that has become known for shutting off the internet
during Mubarak's final attempts to cling to power. Cutting of access to the entire country's population is not a proportional response, and could also be seen as an attempt to silence criticism of President Morsi and other political leaders as there are many parodies and commentaries uploaded to the site every day about the ongoing political struggle. But Egypt has a law against blasphemy and the new constitution prohibits insulting religious messengers or prophets, and since YouTube apparently refused
to take down the video, the judge has decided to block the entire platform. Google, which owns YouTube, said
it had not received any communication from the judge or the government about the matter.
The Ministry of Communication would have to administer the ban, which can still be appealed, and which will undoubtedly spark outrage among the Egyptian youth and political activists. At least Egypt's banning requires some form of due process, unlike Google's decision to unilaterally block the video from being viewed in Egypt and Libya last September. I also read that the White House asked Google to remove the video, which I find troubling since while the video may be pathetic and despicable, it certainly would not qualify as incitement (it does not, for example, call on people to commit violence). And here in France, I received a message that the video link was not permitted in my country location.
I got in a debate about this with Vint Cerf, Google's Chief Internet Evangelist (yes, he has the coolest title in the world, as he pointed out), at the Internet Governance Forum in Azerbaijan last November. He supported the company's decision whereas in my experience it is not the viewing of the video (or the cartoon, as it may be) that creates turmoil and dismay, but rather the provocation and manipulation by political and religious leaders or others who would refer to it to rile up their followers. When I lived in Egypt in 2006 and 2008 I often discussed the Dutch Mohammed cartoon incident with people because I was interested in their perspective. Everyone had an opinion, which was typically that there should be some expectation of respect and sensitivity for religious figures and symbols in publishing, yet I rarely found that anyone with a strong opinion had actually seen the cartoons themselves.
I feel that this is in many ways the same situation that has occurred with the Innocence of Muslims trailer, which was a barely disguised, pathetic attempt to insult and offend Muslims and was clearly designed to be provocative. I doubt that most of the people who took to the streets and
had actually seen the video (there have been 5 million views of the video, and riots in 20 countries resulting in 50 deaths). But they had heard about it, and blocking YouTube or the video itself would not have changed that. A month-long ban on the most popular website in the country is both disproportional and an affront to free speech.
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