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Monday, March 31, 2008

LiveLeak Removes Video After Threats

A polemic movie critical of the Islam got removed from LiveLeak after the makers of the video hosting site apparently got threatened. “This is a sad day for freedom of speech on the net but we have to place the safety and well being of our staff above all else,” the site announced. The short film, called Fitna and created by Dutch politician Geert Wilders, was showing a Muhammad drawing which circulated before, and juxtaposed verses from the Qur’an with atrocities like the attacks against the World Trade Center.

People may have many good reasons to dislike the movie (personally I think it’s rather hateful, over-generalizing and one-sided, for starters... even when it also makes some demands against hate, like hate against gay people – but the movie content itself shouldn’t be the focus of this discussion here). Wanting to censor it, however, seems very misguided. And it is also quite different from wishing the film had never been made, like for the reason that its provocative nature may cause violence.

And threats against the LiveLeak staff are sad, I think. LiveLeak explains to me, “The threats themselves ranged from the standard random internet threat we receive each week to some specific threats that caused us to consider our options.” While LiveLeak did not want to tell more about the threat’s nature, they did say the threats were delivered anonymously, not signed. LiveLeak has a threat evaluation system differentiating between green, amber and red (red being the most dangerous, and it was assigned to the threads against hosting this particular film). While threats against the site are numerous, these ones were specific and local enough to be considered serious danger for the LiveLeak staff.

“We looked at the situation minute by minute for the time we kept the video on the site. Once certain press outlets started providing false information about where the site was based ... we knew the threats would become far more targeted. When this became the case there was no further debate to be had. We had to protect our own,” LiveLeak states.

Threats may get a film removed from one site, though they usually don’t stop a movie from being seen; at the time of this writing, copies of this movie are available on both Google Video as well as Google-owned YouTube[1], among other sharing sites, and any attempt at censoring may only have more people see the movie. Which is probably what Geert Wilders was targeting in the first place. The Wikipedia entry on the film, which was mentioned in the movie itself as the alleged “official” website (it’s not), grew with information as more details came in.

On the other hand, western media might delude themselves thinking they had full freedom of speech, and that it is merely attacks on Islam – like the Muhammad caricatures, which the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper said they posted partly to incite a debate on censorship[2] – which are threatened to become suppressed. There are many taboo topics in western media too,[3] a lot of which could get the creator fired immediately from their job at the publication, and potentially land them in jail.

Now, it’s worth adding that not every kind of speech is welcome in every part of the web (or the world), and you might say for good reason. It depends on the mission of the website; is it supposed to be a platform for all kinds of topics and speech? Or does it disclose more restricted guidelines? Private property, after all, can introduce private rules; if you believe in the right for masses of people to loudly protest on the streets, you may not grant this same right for them to loudly protest in your bedroom every night.

LiveLeak, for instance, disclose in their policies that they have an editorial guideline against showing extreme graphical violence. The moderators in this blog’s forum, me included, will for instance remove personal attacks, trolling, spam, and off-topic posts, among other things. This is done in order to facilitate a debate; trolling, spam and more will actually effectively end the debate (for everyone else but the trolls and spammers, that is).

An ex-Google Answers Researchers who I talked to before went a little further, when she said there’s an “annoying” and “fundamental” misunderstanding of what the First Amendment of the US constitution means.[4] “When the KKK marched in a predominantly Black neighborhood in my area, they were exercising their First Amendment rights.” She argues “So were the people who were throwing bottles at their heads,” adding that she gets angry when people yell “Free speech!” but what they really mean, she says, is “I shouldn’t have to take responsibility for my words!”

Or, one might argue – and this is the case in some countries –, police should be legally obliged to defend demonstrators from physical attacks, no matter how dumb and dangerous the demonstrators (in the case of the Ku Klux Klan, very dumb). That is indeed the law in some countries, though I am not sure if such a government-protected place exists online. In regards to throwing bottles in counter-protest, it may also be useful to differentiate between pure speech, and action (even though the former often ignites the latter, and it becomes fuzzy as soon as speech includes calls to action or hints at planned future action; still, throwing a bottle is direct action). And sometimes, censorship will also stop non-dumb citizens from being able to research an enemy’s voiced position, which in turn will have them blindly rely on “guardians” to filter opinions. Besides, there may be nothing that plays more into the hands of dumb people than smart people trying to suppress their voices – as that suppression is a great groundwork for dumb people to base conspiracy theories on. Stupidity is much less effective when it is exposed, and (if still necessary after the exposure) counter-argued, instead of being kept from view.

Perhaps in all of this the question is not whether you are allowed to say anything everywhere, but whether there is are least some places where you can say anything (and whether people who are interested to hear your message, completely voluntarily, would have a chance to do so)., which also hosts a copy of Geert Wilders’ film – and is currently down, “overloaded by readers,” as the site disclaims – might be intended to be one such place, for instance;, too. (And sometimes, it’s also a question of whether we should ever allow censorship to be built right into our tools... including search engines.[5])

It’s a complicated discussion, and it seems to get more complicated the more you contemplate it. If you live and breathe in what people may regard as a free society, try to think about all the things you’re not supposed to say because it would be illegal. I’m not referring to documentations of direct criminal activity (as they would be proof for a crime, they could naturally get you jailed); I’m referring to something similar to what the authorities in George Orwell’s world call “crimethink,” that is, the mere theoretical pondering of something without action. Pure thought; pure speech. (Freedom of thought and freedom of speech are interrelated and can’t always be separated clearly, like when you talk in your sleep.)

And then, adding even further complexity, beneath the obvious external restrictions of free speech around the world, there are quite many implicit, subtle, political, social ones. A widespread self-censorship before the thought enters paper, or a website, would be such a case; another would be the media shutting out certain positions and only focusing on certain topics that may not be the actual important ones.[6]

One blogger and activist I talked to in the past suggested to me that some topics he may want to discuss on his blog he is too afraid to touch, as it would get him into trouble.

On the current issue, this blogger argues we should be aware that sometimes censorship is real, but sometimes only imagined. He says that as a rule of thumb, loud claims along the lines of “I am being censored!" for “hateful speech against an unpopular minority” are very likely “to have large amounts of manipulation in it.” He thinks that legal freedom of speech must defend hateful speech. “But some haters have become adept at media manipulation, and one has to be careful if they really need defending, or are just trying to get publicity from reactions.” The activist also says that over time he has become more interested in how ideas become marginalized or amplified in society, independent of specific laws of free speech.

Once I asked a well-informed author from the US about Google’s self-censorship in China, as he often shares insightful views on global politics. He was undecided on the issue as he did not have enough information on the specifics of the situation.[7] In the end, he said, “It’s an important issue, and I hope that someone takes it up, but for me personally it’s not a high priority. I’m much more concerned about the severe and [voluntary] censorship in the US and other free societies, which has enormous impact on the world.”

Asked about the controversy surrounding the anti-Islam material, this man goes back to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, saying that he doubts they wanted to incite a debate on censorship. “If they wanted to do that, they could have done something controversial, like running anti-Semitic caricatures of Moses, or caricatures of Christ. Of course, that probably would have landed them in jail (and they had turned down caricatures of Christ not long before, on grounds that they would be offensive to the public).” He goes on to say, “Of course there should be no censorship, but the high and mighty posturing of European critics is mostly pure hypocrisy,” listing laws restricting certain speech in books in France as one example.

The LiveLeak staff in the meantime in regards to the current case says that they made different arrangements to try ensure they will not “be intimidated by such tactics again.” LiveLeak says, “We defended the freedom of speech for content many of us didn’t even agree with,” – adding that indeed some of the staff were truly offended – “and we would do so again in a heartbeat.” The LiveLeak staff say they learned much during the last few days that made them even more determined to continue with their aims.

Wikipedia’s article has already become semi-protected from public editing during the course of its growth, perhaps to deal with too emotional first-time editing of this online encyclopedia which states a goal of neutrality. Near the top of the discussion page to the article, a note has been added. It reads “Discussions on this page may escalate into heated debate. Please try to keep a cool head when commenting here”, with the image of a peace dove next to it.

[1] The film may be against YouTube’s policies though. YouTube says, “We encourage free speech and defend everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view. But 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).”

[2] On a side-note, the creator of the Muhammad cartoon is now reportedly looking to stop the usage of the republication of his cartoon in the movie... due to an alleged violation of copyright. That is yet another, though interesting, discussion: how copyright relates to and affects freedom of speech.

[3] I know there once was a 16-year old in Germany who tried to test how well freedom of speech would hold up. On a German discussion board system preceding the web, he decided to post two provocative jokes he heard, disclaiming that this was a test of censorship. After much heat, the posts became removed. After more heat, the full address of the poster – who used a nickname – was published on the board. After even more heat, the poster had a charge against him delivered with the Berlin police.

[4] Amendment I reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

[5] When I think of Google web search, to name another example, I think (according to Google’s stated mission, but also statements they made in other places like their help files) it should be a tool like a camera – photographing whatever is on the web without any kind of judgment. If it photographs a crime, then it seems logical for the photo to be used as proof to suppress the crime (if it is a crime)... but not to order the camera maker to take technological action at suppressing the photograph.

[6] What are “important” topics for news and what aren’t is perhaps subjective. But for the purpose of this argument, we might define it as “issues the larger number of all citizens, if only they’d know about them and understand their implications, would agree are more news-worthy than the issues they were previously subjected to.” On a side-note, it may well be that many of us consciously or unconsciously opt for the unimportant news if these are more exciting, so it would be too easy to just blame media agendas.

[7] He told me, “Offering limited [G]oogle access to Chinese gives them some rights they didn’t have before. Accepting censorship denies them rights they should have ... Depends on specific circumstances, available alternatives, likely consequences, etc., which have to be evaluated case by case.” Google, as you may know, does not reveal the full case to the press, which would allow for people to make up their own mind about Google’s decision.


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