Censorship of the Internet is one of the distinguishing features of autocratic governments from China to Cuba. Is this the direction the U.S. government might be moving? It’s too early to tell, but the Obama Administration’s unusual request to Google to “review” the offending “Innocence of Muslims” movie trailer is not a good omen.
Google, Inc.’s YouTube unit did in fact block the video in Muslim countries, among them Egypt and Libya. However, as it goes on the Internet, versions of the video can be found through other venues by those determined enough inflict this unbelievable piece of schlock on themselves. As of Sunday night, the video had had well over 5 million hits, and protests in the Middle East continue to spread.
The rioting throughout the Middle East and beyond is not an Internet problem, and government censorship is not the answer. Rather, it is the well-calculated political incitement of religious hatred, which causes eruptions fanned by extremists among tinderbox tense Muslim populations again and again.
A familiar pattern repeats itself here, from the Danish cartoons to the erroneous Koran burnings on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan to “Innocence of Muslims”: It can take weeks or even months for anyone to discover that an “offense” has taken place, and it takes a determined action by an individual to cause it to go viral. In this case, it was apparently one Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-American activist living in Washington, who alerted journalists to the video on September. 6. The YouTube video had in fact been posted since June on the Internet, in well-deserved obscurity.
Under these circumstances, the U.S. government might as well have done what the conservative government of Denmark (a country of 5 million people) did six years ago. Back then, a set of political cartoons in a Danish newspaper featuring the prophet Mohammed caused rampaging mobs in the Middle East to attack Danish embassies. And what did the Danish government do? It spoke out in defense of the private exercise of freedom of expression.
Repeated apologies and denunciations of the video have done the Obama Administration little good. In fact, they may well have stoked the inescapable impression of American weakness and withdrawal, which could help fuel the furor.