The Saryarka regional court of Astana prohibited the US-produced anti-Islamic video "Innocence of Muslims" yesterday in Kazakhstan on the grounds that it was "extremist." The ministry of transport and communication requested the ban on its importation and distribution via the Internet.
Its dissemination has been prohibited since 1 October in Russia, where it is to be added to the list of "extremist" works as a result of a ruling by the Tverskoy regional court in Moscow, which said it "incites religious hatred." The decision is to take effect within ten days if no interested party files an appeal.
Communications minister Nikolai Kikiforov meanwhile said that all YouTube services could be blocked in Russia from 1 November onwards when amendments to the Internet law take effect and as a result of the reaction to the "Innocence of Muslims." The amendments are supposed to protect minors from all "dangerous content."
Finally, a court in Bishkek banned distribution in Kyrgyzstan on 21 September in response to a request by the prosecutor-general's office based on a report by the State Commission on Religious Affairs. The commission said copying and dissemination of the video should be banned because it was "extremist."
26.09.2012 - Censorship of anti-Islamic video – collateral effects on online freedom of information
The online presence of the anti-Islamic film "Innocence of Muslims" continues to give rise to blocking of YouTube, legal actions against it, and blocking of Internet and mobile phone services.
One of the latest cases was in Brazil, where a São Paulo court yesterday ordered Google to withdraw a YouTube video containing scenes from the US-produced film, announcing that it would be fined 10,000 reals (4,950 dollars) a day if it failed to comply within 10 days.
The order was the result of a complaint by the National Islamic Union (UNI) accusing Google of posting an "offensive" video that violated the "constitutional right to freedom of religion." The court rejected the UNI's request for measures to prevent these videos being posted on YouTube again.
In Turkey, the communication ministry announced today that legal proceedings have been just been started with the aim of removing videos showing the film from certain URLs. The authorities also asked Google to remove the film's trailer from YouTube.
The ministry said the aim was to suppress the links that give access to the videos of the film, rather than ban the sites offering the videos.
In Sudan, the National Communications Corporation has blocked access to YouTube since 15 September. A local source told Reporters Without Borders the government was using the offending video as a pretext for blocking a website used by many Sudanese dissidents to circulate information about corruption and human rights abuses, and calls for political reforms.
In India, the government of the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir has suspended access to the Internet and mobile phone services in the Kashmir valley since midnight on 20 September in anticipation of protests against the video.
The government ordered telecommunications services and Internet Service Providers to do whatever was necessary to ensure that their customers could not access the anti-Islamic video. To this end, the home affairs department used powers under section 5 (2) of the 1885 Indian Telegraph Act.
In Egypt, Coptic Christian blogger Albert Saber Ayyad was arrested at his Cairo home on 13 September after a neighbour accused him of being the administrator of an atheist group on Facebook. His laptop was confiscated. He is accused of posting a clip from the anti-Islamic video on the Internet and on Facebook.
When his trial opened today, he pleaded not guilty to charges of blasphemy, insulting religion and inciting sedition. He is facing up to five years in prison on the blasphemy charge under article 98 of the Egypt's criminal code.
Speaking to Agence France-Presse outside the court, his lawyer Ahmed Ezzat, a member of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), said his client had "nothing to do with this insulting film," adding that the case was just "a way to defuse the people's anger."
In the United States, Cindy Lee Garcia, an actress who appeared in the film, intends to bring a federal court action against one of its producers, Californian resident Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, claiming deception and violation of copyright, her lawyer, Cris Armenta, told NBC on 24 September.
Garcia claims that she was deceived about the film's real nature. Her lawsuit, which also accuses Google and YouTube of violating her privacy and putting her life in danger, was originally filed in a Californian state court in Los Angeles. But the judge last week denied her motion for the video to be removed from YouTube.
20.09.2012 - Censorship of anti-Islamic video – collateral effects on online freedom of information
Disturbing online censorship and self-censorship measures have been taken in an attempt to prevent the circulation of "Innocence of Muslims," a US-produced video that denigrates Islam, and to defuse the resulting violence.
Access to the video and/or platform hosting it has been blocked on the initiative of the authorities in some countries. In other countries, it is Google, the company that owns YouTube, that has suspended access to the video's online links (see below for details of the blocking methods).
The blocking of YouTube or Google in its entirety by some governments, whether temporary or not, is clearly an inappropriate and excessive response, regardless of the offensive nature of the video they are trying to suppress. The reaction to the wave of violence triggered by this film must not pave the way or be pretext for more online censorship or more Internet "Balkanization."
YouTube has held its ground and has refused to withdraw the video from the Internet. But the specific "geo-located" censorship used by Google in this particular case, making it inaccessible in certain countries although it complies with its terms of service worldwide, could set a dangerous precedent.
It has been done in response to particularly severe violence but it could create a vicious circle and open the way to local pressure by interests groups seeking the suppression of content they regard as offensive.
At the same time, eliminating online content in cases such as this is rendered almost impossible because videos spread even more by what is known as the "Streisand Effect" and through the use of censorship circumvention tools.
The perverse effects of the progression of online censorship should not be underestimated. The same platforms that are the targets of filtering and blocking mechanisms today are also the ones that are used to promote religious ideas and doctrine.
Blocking by governments and/or government agencies
The authorities in several countries have adopted various blocking methods – some targeted, some blanket – without referring to the courts.
Pakistan: The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) blocked access to the video on 14 September using its power to suppress blasphemous and pornographic websites. Officials said the PTA was working closely with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and was doing pro-active surveillance and blocking around the clock.
The head of the PTA said he initially sent a request to YouTube, which replied that Pakistan and YouTube did not have a specific accord on withdrawing content. There is indeed no local version of YouTube. After insisting that the blocking only concerned anti-Islamic content and not the entire YouTube site, the government asked the public to report blasphemous content to the PTA., adding that blocking decisions would be taken on a case-by-case basis.
Bangladesh: The authorities blocked the YouTube site indefinitely on 17 September while Google's search engine was rendered inaccessible for a few hours. The day before, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission wrote to Google requesting the video's withdrawal "to prevent violence and social disorder."
Afghanistan: The government announced on 12 September that it blocked YouTube for 90 minutes to prevent the video from being viewed. It said it ordered ISPs to block access to the video until it was withdrawn.
Saudi Arabia: The Commission for Information Technology and Communication threatened Google with rendering YouTube completely inaccessible in Saudi Arabia if it did not block all links to the video. The official news agency, SPA, reported yesterday that the commission also ordered the country's ISPs to block access to the video. According to the economist Essam al-Zamil, a columnist on the Alyaum.com news website, YouTube allegedly blocked at least one video after this announcement.
The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Yemen also ordered ISPs to block access to all websites carrying the video.
Blocking by YouTube and Google
The country-by-country variation in Google's handling of the situation raises a number of questions. The California-based company resisted pressure to withdraw the video from YouTube on the grounds that it did not contravene its Terms of Service or the YouTube community's rules. But it rendered the video inaccessible in several countries on the grounds of "exceptional circumstances" (in Egypt and Libya) or the video's "illegality" (in Indonesia and India), while requests from other countries such as Pakistan or Bangladesh were rejected or received no answer.
Aside from the cases of Libya and Egypt, Google reportedly acted after receiving written requests from governments, but not necessarily following court decisions.
This affair again raises the issue of corporate social responsibility and the challenges posed by private-sector arbitration in free speech issues. In recent years, Google has tried to protect is image as a defender of free expression by, for example, ending self-censorship of its search engine in China and launching the Transparency Report, which lists the number of content withdrawal requests by each country and how Google responded. But now questions are being asked about its response to these government requests and the many other kinds pressure, and it could have an impact on other Internet companies.
Google issued the following statement on 15 September: "We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what's OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video – which is widely available on the Web – is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, we've restricted access to it in countries where it is illegal such as India and Indonesia as well as in Libya and Egypt given the very sensitive situations in these two countries. This approach is entirely consistent with principles we first laid out in 2007." "We will, at times, restrict content on country-specific domains where a nation’s laws require it in response to local government requests."
Malaysia: The video was blocked following an official written complaint from the national Internet regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission. The government had previously threatened Google with legal action in Malaysia under article 298a of the criminal code (threatening "harmony or unity on the grounds of religion") if it did not block the video.
Indonesia: At the government's request, Google blocked access to 16 URLs linked to "Innocence of Muslims" on 14 September. The authorities, who hailed Google's cooperation, also asked Research in Motion, the Canadian manufacturer of the BlackBerry smartphone, to restrict access to the video.
India: The foreign ministry said that Google India had blocked access to "shocking” content on 16 September in compliance with India's laws.
Libya and Egypt: Alluding to the violence that the video triggered in these two countries, YouTube said it blocked the video on 13 September because of "exceptional circumstances."
Blocking threats in other countries
In Russia, communication minister Nikolai Nikiforov announced that the entire YouTube website could be blocked when a new Internet law comes into full effect on 1 November if YouTube had not blocked the video by then. Intended to "protect minors against dangerous content," the new law allows the authorities to block an entire site if it is hosting banned content.
On 17 September, the prosecutor-general's office asked a court to deny access to the video by adding it to the list of content classified as "extremist." The judges, who usually grant this kind of request, have five days to reach a decision.
Russian ISPs are meanwhile having to cope with contradictory requests. Several of them, including Megafon, Rostelekom and Vympelkom, let it be known that they have already received letters from the prosecutor-general's office asking them to block the video. Roskomnadzor (the federal agency that supervises communications) has also "recommended" that all ISPs block the video without delay.
Rostelekom blocked all access to YouTube for seven hours yesterday in Omsk (in western Siberia) at the request of the regional prosecutor's office. ISPs in Khakassia (in central Siberia) received a similar request from the prosecutor's office.
In Kyrgyzstan, the prosecutor's office today announced its intention of filing a request for the courts to recognize the video's "extremist" nature. If added to the list of "extremist" content, it could be banned throughout the country.