By Khurram Baig –
Google appears to have different yardsticks for what it deems offensive, leaving Islamabad with little choice
Did the headline make your jaw drop? If I saw this, mine would. After all how could any sane, open-minded and sensible person ever be in favour of such a draconian and extreme measure?
Don’t get me wrong. I am definitely not an advocate of Internet censorship and suppression of free speech or curbs. I believe in the freedom of speech, in the right to expression and in the right to information as much as anyone else.
In fact, I think the ban on YouTube was never the answer to the problem in the first place. It was a reactionary measure, one made to please the conservative Right — which are believed to be the majority — but the majority is not always right. A case in point is the kind of politicians we keep sending to our assemblies.
Pakistan had banned YouTube over clips from a sacrilegious film hosted on the website that sought to ridicule Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) on September 17, 2012. That’s about five months now and it seems, after dropping several hints that the ban might be lifted after the development and setting up of a filtering system, the government has eventually come out and said the ban may remain in place, indefinitely.
The decision was made during a meeting of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Information Technology. During the meeting, the Ministries of Law and Information Technology said complete blocking of anti-Islamic content on the website was impossible. They added YouTube was not willing to extend cooperation to the government of Pakistan in the matter.
Contrary to what many people may believe, the government of Pakistan did approach Google and ask for the video to be removed. Google refused, citing freedom of speech. They also said they couldn’t remove the video or any other video for just Pakistani viewers because a YouTube did not have a dedicated .pk domain.
I am not entirely convinced that is a valid argument for their ‘inability’ to remove the video. For example, Google has blocked the video in Indonesia and India for breaking local laws, which forbid inciting hatred. And it temporarily restricted access to the video in Libya and Egypt on its own because of the “sensitive situations” in those countries.
I feel Google is being unfair and biased in how it is interpreting this situation.
For instance, Google has already refused the White House’s request to reconsider keeping the video online. The company claimed that Innocence of Muslims does not violate its terms of service concerning hate speech — a stance it has reiterated several times Google has claimed the footage is against Islam, not the Muslim people. I fail to see the argument here, seems like semantics to me.
This becomes even more evident if we take a look at some parts of their own guidelines. A part of the guidelines reads as follows:
We don’t permit hate speech (speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/gender identity).
And goes on as follows:
“Hate speech” refers to content that promotes hatred against members of a protected group. For instance, racist or sexist content may be considered hate speech. Sometimes there is a fine line between what is and what is not considered hate speech. For instance, it is generally okay to criticize a nation, but not okay to make insulting generalizations about people of a particular nationality.
Google’s lawyer Timothy Alger has gone on record during a hearing of a request by an actress who appeared in the film to remove it. He went on to say the film is on a topic of interest and wide debate and therefore cannot be removed.
“Our laws encourage free speech, especially with matters of public concern. We don’t allow people with private interests to trump that,” he said. “No matter how we view the content, whether it’s reprehensible or mocking, the fact is, it’s a subject of wide debate on a topic of interest for people around the world.”
It is a little confusing how something is acceptable simply because it is a topic of interest for people around the world. So is pornography, yet YouTube finds that offensive.
And the definition of free speech is fluid, depending on how one interprets it. How it is that, for example, someone can be arrested for simply being a Holocaust denier? Austrian writer Gerd Honsik has been fined and sentenced to jail in several Austrian court cases due to his activities as a Holocaust denier. Is Honsik not entitled to his opinion?
And there have been instances where YouTube has removed videos that users found offensive and petitioned for removal. The Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI) released a report in July, 2012 documenting extensive anti-Semitism and racial hatred on YouTube, prompting the closure of the account of the culprit.
The report, which sought to address the lacunae in online regulation of hate speech, highlights how one user uploaded 1,710 videos in a single day — the vast majority (87%) of which it said, consisted of blatant hate speech. A substantial number of the videos, the report said, were said to be about Holocaust denial and defence of Holocaust deniers. YouTube closed the user’s account within 24 hours of receiving an advanced copy of OHPI’s report.
In September last year, a Brazilian court banned the anti-Islamic movie and gave YouTube 10 days to pull the film’s trailer from its website. Google in response said it was appealing the decision.
“Being a platform, Google is not responsible for the content posted on its site,” the company said in an emailed statement from Sao Paulo. Yet the Holocaust videos were removed. That makes no sense.
One is of course not advocating the removal of the anti-Islamic video or promotion of anti-Semitic viewpoints — only simply trying to point out the flaws in Google’s arguments.
However, I also agree that Google is a company and not a government organization, and therefore they have the right to refuse service to anyone they wish — regardless of “freedom of speech” rights granted by law. They chose to refuse service to the folks who posted the anti-Holocaust videos but have not yet refused service to the person who posted the anti-Islamic video. That is their choice, and it is their prerogative.
Google has refused to accept that the video is indeed offensive to many and persists in keeping it online. It has however, failed to make a logical rationale as to why this is not offensive and the anti-Holocaust videos were.
In this case, I do believe Google left the Pakistan government — whether Islamabad’s request was right or wrong — with no choice but to take such extreme measures.
The writer is a print and broadcast journalist with IT expertise based in Karachi