Is YouTube feeding the regional crackdown on cyber-activists?



 
Esra'a Al Shafei, director of MideastYouth.com, looks at YouTube's suspension of Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas' account, and wonders why the tech giant is choosing the side of the oppressors of free speech.
 
By Esra'a Al Shafei
 
Torture Egypt
Why does YouTube consider the Rodney King video suitable but not Wael Abbas' videos of torture in Egypt? R.R.

The internet has been a prominent tool for human rights activists to convey and receive controversial information. Many interactive websites allow activists to network, help, and empower each other.

One of such sites is YouTube, a video-sharing network where users can upload and host videos. YouTube continues to serve as a vital source for videos that reveal various human rights abuses such as police brutality in restricted countries like Egypt and Iran.

Many activists were comforted in the knowledge that new technology is aiding their efforts in increasing awareness about the injustices taking place in censorship-ridden societies.

Egyptian blogger and anti-torture activist Wael Abbas is one of several Egyptians who take advantage of the many benefits of sites like YouTube to further their struggle for justice in their country. Abbas’ videos contained unpleasant and alarming scenes of police brutality in Egypt, many of which were revealed for the very first time.

Reactions such videos were receiving only proved the growing influence of YouTube, which undoubtedly inspired other activists to find and circulate videos that were relevant to their efforts. Videos of rallies, court cases or interviews of controversial bloggers such as the currently imprisoned Kareem Amer soon became a common find for users seeking civil rights in Egypt.

This, one would think, is a positive outcome of technology. For once, rampant regional censorship couldn’t stop us from accessing videos that showed the true nature of certain governments and what they were actively trying to hide from the public.

YouTube apparently holds a different viewpoint.

Last week, its staff suspended Abbas’ YouTube account for several days, causing the deletion of dozens of videos that reveal torture taking place in Egyptian prisons.

To YouTube’s credit, Abbas’ account was restored only days after its suspension, likely due to public concerns and pressure, but with all of the videos removed.

Videos of Abbas’ media appearances concerning his cyber-activism were also deleted, even though these videos contained absolutely no violence or graphic footage that could have been in violation of the website’s policy and legal use.

Why, then, couldn’t YouTube only remove the videos in question?

Why did YouTube terminate Abbas’ account entirely, making all of his videos inaccessible?

Since November 2006, YouTube has been officially owned by Google Inc. It’s therefore safe to assume that both sites maintain a similar philosophy. The mission of Google, as stated on Google’s official page, is “to organize the world's information and make it universally useful and accessible.”

But how can people make universal use out of Google’s products if its staff seemingly practices censorship?

How can people find or have access to certain information if Google suspends user accounts without issuing a valid reason or prior notice?

Is Google’s YouTube really functioning to serve and apply its stated mission as best as possible?

One can’t help but ponder such questions, seeing as this is not the first time YouTube caves to state-sponsored censorship.

In May of this year, WebProNews, a popular newsletter about eBusiness professionals, featured an article by Doug Caverly who wrote about the controversy concerning an inappropriate video on YouTube which mocked Ataturk, the first President of the Turkish Republic.

The Turkish authorities responded by banning the website, and YouTube consequently removed the offending videos from its server. According to TechCrunch, a blog that profiles and reviews internet companies, YouTube gave in to Turkish censorship twice within a span of only 2 months.

Several websites, including the Committee to Protect Bloggers, wrote about YouTube’s trend of removing politically motivated videos that often get regional authorities complaining.

Turkey’s ban of YouTube was soon followed by a ban of WordPress, a blog publishing platform used by at least 20,000 bloggers in Turkey to express their opinions. When WordPress’ founding developer Matt Mullenweg learned about the ban, he noted that WordPress would never jeopardize Turkish bloggers’ freedom of speech. As a result, none of the “offensive” blogs were removed by the WordPress staff.

YouTube has reacted quite differently; it has made no effort to protect freedom of speech or human rights activism.

The ultimate question is why?

Why was Abbas’ account suspended?

Why are we no longer exposed to a grave injustice committed by the Egyptian government?

Could YouTube not take WordPress’s lead in protecting the rights of its users by challenging the governments in question instead of blindly serving them?

YouTube does have a policy against violent videos, but it seems to be quite selective in the application of this rule. There are many videos that feature violence or graphic scenes, and instead of deleting them, YouTube merely requests that the viewers are registered and are at least 18 years of age.

Simon Columbus, who runs Blogger for Freedom, notes that YouTube hosts various versions of the beating of Rodney King, which is also violent. They remain widely viewed and circulated on YouTube, perhaps due to the historical significance of the incident. 

Abbas’ videos are equivalent in terms of social significance. The intention is to increase awareness about certain corrupt practices taking place within Egypt. In no way do these videos promote such violent tactics, quite to the contrary.

If YouTube prides itself on its mission, which is to empower its users to become the "broadcasters of tomorrow", perhaps they should allow users to use the influential website as a tool to escape censorship.

If YouTube practices censorship whenever a government official complains about supposedly "inappropriate" or "illegal" videos, it will not allow its users to become the "broadcasters of tomorrow" in many parts of the world.

If Google truly wants to uphold its standards of free information for the masses, perhaps they should help empower the people who are risking their lives for a taste of the freedom that Google preaches.


Esra’a Al Shafei is the director of Mideast Youth (www.mideastyouth.org) and the Free Kareem Coalition (www.FreeKareem.org).