Last Updated: Thu Sep 13, 2012 14:53 pm (KSA) 11:53 am (GMT)

Google blocks video clips in Egypt, Libya amid concerns over anti-Islam film

An Afghan woman browses the YouTube at a public internet cafe in Kabul as Afghanistan banned the website to stop Afghans watching a U.S. made film insulting the Prophet Mohammed. (Reuters)
An Afghan woman browses the YouTube at a public internet cafe in Kabul as Afghanistan banned the website to stop Afghans watching a U.S. made film insulting the Prophet Mohammed. (Reuters)

YouTube, the video website owned by Google Inc, will not remove a film clip mocking the Islamic Prophet Mohammed that has been blamed for anti-U.S. protests in Egypt and Libya, but it has blocked access to it in those countries, as mystery remained over exactly who was behind the anti-Islam film.

The clip, based on a longer film, depicts the prophet as a fraud and philanderer and has been blamed for sparking violence at U.S. embassies in Cairo and Benghazi. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other American diplomats were killed by gunmen in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday.

Google’s response to the crisis highlighted the struggle faced by the company, and others like it, to balance free speech with legal and ethical concerns in an age when social media can impact world events.

Analysts say they have seen a handful of Internet companies generally take a more hands-off approach to controversial political speech, perhaps motivated by idealistic and business considerations.

Afghan authorities have ordered the YouTube website be shutdown "indefinitely" to stop Afghans watching the U.S.-made film.

The shutdown will begin some time today, they said, adding it was ordered to prevent outbreaks of the violence seen in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.

“This video -- which is widely available on the Web -- is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube,” Google said in a statement. “However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt, we have temporarily restricted access in both countries.”

The company added: “Our hearts are with the families of the people murdered in yesterday’s attack in Libya.”

The 14-minute clip is a trailer for a film called the “Innocence of Muslims,” widely attributed to a man who described himself as a California-based Israeli Jew named Sam Bacile.

Under Google’s procedures, YouTube users can flag objectionable content. It is reviewed by a team of Google staff scattered around the world. By late Thursday, a copy of the video had been viewed more than 122,000 times and had been flagged by users for removal, but it remained.

When videos come under review, YouTube weighs the content against “community guidelines,” which prohibit hate speech, including speech that attacks or demeans a group based on religion. The guidelines can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/t/community--guidelines.

“They’ve had a number of years to be thinking about free speech issues,” Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain said.

“I can see them trying to keep an eye on the longer term and not wanting to go down the slippery slope of entertaining more and more demands to take things down. That can be corrosive in the longer haul.”

Observers say Google has grown more averse to removing videos. After its 2006 acquisition of YouTube, i t was accused of censorship in several high-profile controversies.

“They’re squeezed on all sides,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a fellow at the New America Foundation. “But because of pressure from a lot of people who feel they made the wrong decisions, they now generally err on the side of keeping things up.”

In recent years, Google has used technology to filter out videos in certain countries to comply with local regulations. Twitter announced a similar technology to censor tweets by country this year.

Others say Google has not done enough and bears a responsibility to police hate- speech more closely.

In 2008, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut accused Google of not doing enough to remove YouTube videos produced by Islamic militants. An Italian court in 2010 convicted four Google executives of invasion of privacy after faulting the company for not moving quickly enough to pull a video of an autistic child being bullied.

On Wednesday, Afghanistan’s general director of information technology at the Ministry of Communications, Aimal Marjan, told Reuters: “We have been told to shut down YouTube to the Afghan public until the video is taken down.”

YouTube did not respond to a request for comment on the Afghan government’s move.

Underscoring Google’s quandary, some digital free expression groups have criticized YouTube for censoring the video.

Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said given Google’s strong track record of protecting free speech, she was surprised the company gave in to pressure to selectively block in an attempt “to be seen as doing something in response to the violence.”

“It is extremely unusual for YouTube to block a video in any country without it being a violation of their terms of service or in response to a valid legal complaint,” Galperin said. “I’m not sure they did the right thing.”

Zittrain said the dilemmas facing YouTube will persist as the flow of online content continues to balloon.

“It’s a more vibrant and chaotic speech marketplace than we've ever known,” Zittrain said.

Meanwhile, mystery remained over exactly who was behind the anti-Islam film which sparked deadly protests in the Middle East, amid conflicting claims of Jewish or Coptic Christian involvement.

Bacile, the film’s director said Tuesday he is American-Israeli and had Jewish financial backing, went into hiding after the protests in Egypt and Libya over his low-budget movie “Innocence of Muslims,” according to AFP.

But doubts about his identity grew, culminating in U.S. media reports pointing to a California Coptic Christian convicted of financial crimes, living outside Los Angeles.

Adding further to the puzzle, the cast and crew of the movie voiced anger at having been exploited, with at least one saying that offensive parts of dialogue had been dubbed over their own words, as filmed.

Steve Klein, a consultant on the movie, denied that Israeli authorities were involved in the film, and said Bacile -- which he acknowledged was a pseudonym -- was mortified to hear of the U.S. ambassador’s death in Libya.

“He’s very upset that the ambassador got murdered,” he told AFP.

In a Wall Street Journal interview published Tuesday, “Bacile” took straight aim at Islam.

“Islam is a cancer,” he said, adding that he had raised $5 million to make it from about 100 Jewish donors, and used some 60 actors and 45 crew to make the two-hour movie in a three-month period last year in California.

The film was screened in one Hollywood movie theater about three months ago, and sank without trace, until an Arabic-language dubbed version was released last week and footage was aired by an Egyptian TV station, triggering protests.

But the cast and crew voiced anger Wednesday, according to CNN, which cited a joint statement as saying: “The entire cast and crew are extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer.”

“We are 100% not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose... We are shocked by the drastic re-writes of the script and lies that were told to all involved.”

Actress Cindy Lee Garcia, who plays a woman whose young daughter is given to Mohammed to marry, said she did not know the film was anti-Muslim propaganda, adding that dialogue had been overdubbed after filming.

“It was going to be a film based on how things were 2,000 years ago,” Garcia told the gossip website Gawker. “There wasn’t anything about Mohammed or Muslims or anything.”

Indeed, the over-dubbing of dialogue is obvious to even to a casual viewer of a 14-minute clip for the movie available online, with words crudely inserted in the middle of sentences.

Online reports cited in the New York Times blog suggested Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian, and his ally Terry Jones, the Florida pastor notorious for previous Quran-burning stunts, had cooperated in promoting the movie.

But later Wednesday a report cited by U.S. media identified Nakoula Basseley Nakoula as saying he managed the company that produced the film, and that he was a Coptic Christian.

The 55-year-old, who was sentenced to 21 months in jail over federal bank fraud charges in 2010, denied however that he was Bacile, even though a cellphone used for a media interview Tuesday was traced to his address.

Klein said he did not know the filmmaker’s nationality -- and denied that Israeli authorities had anything to do with the project.

Klein warned that the director could suffer the same fate as Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was assassinated in 2004 after triggering protests with an anti-Muslim film.

Pastor Jones meanwhile denied that the film was against Muslims. “The film is not intended to insult the Muslim community, but... to reveal truths about Mohammed that are possibly not widely known,” he said in a statement.

“The fruits of the religion speak for themselves. For example the recent outbreak of violence and deaths is not because of the film, it is not because of the activities that we have done, and that we will continue to do.”

The top U.S. military officer, General Martin Dempsey, called Jones, whose previous threats to burn the Quran ignited deadly riots in Afghanistan, to urge him to disavow the film.

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