Should religious or cultural sensibilities ever limit free expression?

Writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik and art historian and educator Nada Shabout  on one of the art world’s most contentious debates

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Mark Boardman/

Mark Boardman/

Dear Nada,

I regard free speech as a fundamental good, the fullest extension of which is necessary for democratic life and for the development of other liberties. Others view speech as a luxury rather than as a necessity, or at least as merely one right among others, and not a particularly important one. Speech from this perspective needs to be restrained not as an exception but as the norm.

The answer to whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression depends upon which of these ways we think of free speech. For those, like me, who look upon free speech as a fundamental good, no degree of cultural or religious discomfort can be reason for censorship. There is no free speech without the ability to offendreligious and cultural sensibilities.

For those for whom free speech is more a luxury than a necessity, censorship is a vital tool in maintaining social peace and order. Perhaps the key argument made in defence of the idea of censorship to protect cultural and religious sensibilities is that speech must necessarily be less free in a plural society. In such a society, so the argument runs, we need to police public discourse about different cultures and beliefs both to minimise friction and to protect the dignity of individuals, particularly from minority communities. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, “if people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism”.

I take the opposite view. It is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In such societies it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And they should be openly resolved, rather than suppressed in the name of “respect” or “tolerance”.

But more than this: the giving of offence is not just inevitable, but also important. Any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply-held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: “You can’t say that!” is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. The notion that it is wrong to offend cultural or religious sensibilities suggests that certain beliefs are so important that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. The right to “subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism” is the bedrock of an open, diverse society, and the basis of promoting justice and liberties in such societies. Once we give up such a right we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.

The question we should ask ourselves, therefore, is not “should religious and cultural sensibilities ever limit free expression?” It is, rather, “should we ever allow religious and cultural sensibilities to limit our ability to challenge power and authority?”

Best wishes,


Mark Boardman/

Mark Boardman/

Dear Kenan,

I too regard free speech as a fundamental good and as necessary. On the surface, thus, the simple and direct answer to the question of whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression should be an unequivocal NO! However, the reality is that the question itself is problematic. While free expression, and let’s think of art in this specific case, will always push the limits and “reveal the hidden”, consideration and sensitivity, including religious and cultural sensibility, should not be inherently in opposition. By positioning it as such, the answer can only be reactive. I thus disagree with your argument.

A quick note on “censorship”. Yes, we all hate the word and find it very offensive. It is a word loaded with oppression, but the reality is that censorship in some form exists in every facet of life, personal and public. It is not that one needs to restrict speech in a plural society but that this plurality needs to find a peaceful way of co-existing with respect and acceptance, as much as possible — not tolerance; I personally abhor the word tolerance and find that it generally masks hatred and disdain. No belief is above criticism and nothing should limit our ability to challenge power and authority.

I suppose one needs to decide first the point of this criticism/free expression. Does it have a specific message or reason, and how best to deliver it — or is it simply someone’s personal free expression in the absolute? And if it is someone’s right to free expression, then why is it privileged above someone else’s right — religious and cultural sensibility being someone’s right to expression as well?

For example, and I will use art again, there is a problem when art/the artist is privileged as “genius”, with rights above other citizens — except not really, since the artist is subject to other limitations that may not be religious or cultural, like those of the tradition of expression, funding, law and so on. This is not to say that a religion should dictate expression. We should remember, though, that the marvel of what we call Islamic art was achieved within full respect of Islamic religious sensibilities, but also pushed the limits and critiqued simplicity in interpreting these sensibilities.

Perhaps my view here is less idealistic and more practical, but I see many unnecessary attacks on all sides that do not accomplish anything other than insult and inflame. All I’m saying is that expression is always achieved through negotiations, including limitations.

All the best,


Dear Nada,

I’m afraid that I was no clearer at the end of your letter than I was at the beginning about your actual stance on free speech. You say you ‘regard free speech as a fundamental good’ and that the answer to “whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression should be an unequivocal NO!”  You then, however, go on seemingly to qualify that unequivocal stance but without actually specifying what it is that you wish to qualify. Where should the line be drawn when it comes to the issue of what is and is not legitimate free speech? Who should draw that line? And on what basis? These are the critical questions that need answering. You write: “It is not that one needs to restrict speech in a plural society but that this plurality needs to find a peaceful way of co-existing with respect and acceptance”. It’s a wonderful sentiment, but what does it actually mean in practice? Should Salman Rushdie not have written The Satanic Verses so that he could find “a peaceful way of coexisting with respect and acceptance”? Was the Birmingham Rep right to drop Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti after protests from Sikhs? Should Jerry Springer: The Opera ever have been staged (or broadcast)?

You suggest that “one needs to decide first the point of this criticism/free expression. Does it have a specific message or reason, and how best to deliver it — or is it simply someone’s personal free expression in the absolute?” Again, I am unclear as to the point you’re making here. Are you suggesting here that speech is only legitimate if it has “a specific message or reason”? If so,who decides whether it does? During the controversy over The Satanic Verses, the philosopher Shabbir Akhtar distinguished between “sound historical criticism” and “scurrilously imaginative writing”, and insisted that Rushdie’s novel fell on the wrong side of the line. Do you agree with him? If not, why not? You ask: “If it is someone’s right to free expression, then why is it privileged above someone else’s right — religious and cultural sensibility being someone’s right to expression as well?”  This seems to me a meaningless question. A “sensibility” is not a “right”, still less a “right to expression”. If your point is that all people, whatever their religious or cultural beliefs, should have the right to express those beliefs, then I agree with you. That is the core of my argument. What they do not have is the “right” to prevent anybody expressing their views because those views might offend their “sensibilities”.

A final point: to defend the right of X to speak as he or she wishes is not the same as defending the wisdom of X using speech in a particular fashion, still less the same as defending the content of his or her speech. Take, for instance, The Innocence of Muslims, the risibly crude and bigoted anti-Muslim video that provoked so much controversy and violence last year. I would defend the right of such a film to be made. But I would also question the wisdom of making it, and would strongly challenge the sentiments expressed in it. There is a distinction to be drawn, in other words, between the right to something and the wisdom of exercising that right in particular ways. It is a distinction that critics of free speech too often fail to understand.



Dear Kenan,

Nicely said! I believe we are ultimately saying the same thing. It is that “distinction” that you outline in your last paragraph that I call a negotiation between all sides, cultures, etc. My answer is not clear because the issue is not simple! I am saying that it is not a black and white binary divide nor can one “draw a line”. And yes, “who should draw that line? and on what basis?” is critical and essential. I believe that should be reached through negotiation. The “wisdom” of something to exist is as important as its right to exist. But there is also the question of responsibility. Free speech cannot be “inherently good” or bad. The person who utters that speech must claim responsibility for its use and effects. The examples you cite above are not all equal. Yes, they all have the right to exist. But let’s think a bit about the Danish cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed as another example. Were they not an attack aimed to inflame Muslim communities? Was it not part of Islamophobia?

Was the aim not to ridicule and play off people’s fears and prejudices? How were they a critique of Islam? What was the point? It is not that “it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures” as you once said, but the how and why are just as important as the right to cause that offence. I agree with you that the fear of consequences has become a limitation, but that isperhaps because free speech has been abused.

Perhaps I am looking at this from a different point of view. As an educator, I often face the situation, equally here in the US and in the Middle East, of how to argue a point that has become of specific cultural/religious/political sensitivity to my students. If I offend them here, they will stop listening; in the Middle East, I will not be allowed to continue. What would I gain by doing that? By negotiation I test the limits and push gently. At least in academia, I think we are at a point where we have to teach our students to not get offended by an opposing opinion and to be able to accept various opinions and to be able to accept criticism. I don’t think I can achieve that through shock alone!

Best, Nada

Dear Nada

You write that your “answer is not clear because the issue is not simple”. Perhaps. But surely, if the answer is not simple, that only places a greater imperative to make one’s answers as clear as possible?

You believe that we are “ultimately saying the same thing”. I am not so sure that we are. So, let us try to work out where we do agree and where we don’t.

There are two questions we are debating. The first is about the legal limits to free speech. My view is that the law should not in any way protect cultural or religious sensibilities. All speech should be legal except where it directly incites violence. I assume that is your position, though you have never actually stated it as such. Do we agree on that?

The second question is about how we can define speech that is legally acceptable but morally distasteful. You say that where we draw the moral line “should be reached through negotiation”. But negotiation with whom? And on what basis?

You raise a series of questions about the Danish cartoons, and imply that the cartoons were not legitimate speech but created merely to provoke, and hence should not have been published. You don’t, however, actually say that. So, to clarify, is that your view?

Exactly the same questions were, as I pointed out in an earlier letter, asked about The Satanic Verses, and many came to the same conclusions about Rushdie’s novel: that it was Islamophobic, designed to provoke and inflame Muslim communities, that it ridiculed Islam and played off people’s fears, and so on. The philosopher Shabbir Akhtar described it as an “inferior piece of hate literature”. The liberal Ziauddin Sardar wrote that reading the novel felt like being “raped”. The novelist Rana Kabani insisted that it played upon ancient Islamophobic stereotypes.

In the case of both The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons, the majority of Muslims, certainly initially, stayed indifferent to the issue. A vocal minority transformed both into global controversies. So, what does “negotiation” mean in this context? Muslim objection to The Satanic Verses was as deep and as broad as that to the Danish cartoons. Yet, you seem to think that it was right to publish the novel but not the cartoons. Why? And please don’t say “My answer can’t be clear because the issue is not simple”.

In any case, the questions that you raise — Is it Islamophobic? Is the aim merely to ridicule? etc — are different from the question that we are actually addressing: “Should religious or cultural sensibilities ever limit free speech?”. There is, in my view, a moral imperative on free speech advocates to challenge racist and other bigoted speech. I certainly do not that think that about speech that offends cultural or religious sensibilities. On the contrary, the moral imperative is often to transgress such boundaries. It is the conflation of racism and bigotry, on the one hand, and of cultural and religious sensibilities, on the other, that is the problem. Opponents of free speech often conflate these two issues in an attempt to establish a spurious legitimacy for their arguments against the giving of offence.

Best wishes,

Kenan Malik is a writer and broadcaster. His latest book is From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy (Atlantic Books)

Nada Shabout is associate professor of art education and art history at the University of North Texas and director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Institute

magazine March 2013-Fallout

This article appears in Fallout: free speech and the economic crisis. Click here for subscription options and more.

Google Transparency Report shows Brazil tops takedown table

Governments around the world are ramping up their takedown requests, the latest data from Google’s Transparency Report revealed yesterday. 56 countries issued a record 2,285 requests to remove 24,179 pieces of content from the company’s products and platforms in the second half of 2012. This update comes three months after Google reported record high government requests for user data in the same period.

Brazil topped the list of offenders. The country’s courts and government agencies issued 697 content removal requests, more than double the number issued by the second-placed United States. Half of Brazil’s requests were to remove content that allegedly defamed or offended political candidates. Google removed content in some of these cases but is appealing others on the grounds that Brazil’s constitution protects free speech.

The countries in which courts requested the most individual items be removed were Turkey (8,751 items), the US (3,624) and Brazil (1,654). Requests from Turkey cited content that infringed copyrights or allegedly violated local laws that prohibit criticising the Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. US requests mainly cited defamation and trademark infringements.

According to Google’s newly compiled data, the most common reasons countries cite for removal requests since 2010 have been privacy and security, defamation, copyright, religious offence, electoral law, government criticism and adult content.

India’s government agencies issued 2,529 non-court takedown requests, far more than any other country. Most of these were issued in line with local laws on public order and ethnic offence amidst political unrest in India’s northeastern states.

Russia issued only six requests for Google to remove content in the first half of 2012. That number jumped to 114 in the second half of the year, 107 of which directly cited Russia’s new internet blacklist law. The law, which went into effect in late October, requires ISPs to block websites that contain “harmful” information including child pornography, “extremist materials” and information on suicide or drug use.

Countries with the worst digital freedom records like China and Iran requested few or no takedowns. Google services are limited or blocked and the internet already heavily restricted in these countries, meaning other measures are often taken to block access to online content.

In a troubling sign of internationally overlapping censorship, 20 countries requested that Google address the “Innocence of Muslims” video on YouTube, which the company owns. Australia, Egypt and the US merely asked Google to review the video’s compliance with its own community guidelines, but the rest requested it be locally blocked. Google complied with eight of these requests in accordance with local laws. It also preemptively blocked access to the video in Libya and Egypt “due to difficult circumstances”.

While government requests for content removal might be on the rise, Google’s compliance with these requests has fallen consistently from 76 percent in 2010 to 45 percent today.

Google’s transparency report has been a useful benchmark for the global state of online free expression since it first launched in 2010. Yesterday’s update comes one month after Microsoft issued its first report of this kind. Dropbox, LinkedIn and Twitter all share similar statistics.

How the law caught up with the internet

The decentralised, ungovernable nature of the early internet was an intentional design feature and not a bug. As a result, today’s internet is an open network, where unprecedented creative and economic innovation, art, commentary and citizen journalism flourish.

But child pornography, hate speech and copyright infringement have also thrived, leading to mounting pressures to bring online activity under government control. As nations push for these changes, global interconnectivity and freedom of expression are at risk.

As long as computers speak the TCP/IP protocol, or ‘language’, they can exchange information without centralised controls, standardised operating systems or consideration of geographic location. Users do not need to register or identify themselves. These networks are both simple and robust, and there is no single point of failure.

The Innocence of Muslims film was widely censored

The laissez-faire design principles of the network are reinforced by the legal regime of its birthplace, the United States. The US allows private, unregulated businesses to connect to and innovate on the network without government permission. The First Amendment guarantees that the vast majority of online communications will not result in governmental sanction. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), which states that online platforms should not be treated as if they are the speaker or publisher of user-generated content, ensures that online companies are not required to review user posts in advance to avoid liability, a precaution that would be impossible anyway, considering 72 hours of video are uploaded to platforms like YouTube every minute.

While the founding fathers of the internet weren’t envisioning Facebook or YouTube, the TCP/IP protocol made these innovations possible. Photos of cats, indie music and films from around the world can all be found online, along with fraudsters, Nazi propaganda and videos about how to be anorexic.

Activist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation John Gilmore said in 1993: ‘The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.’ But in the face of the darker uses of the network, Gilmore’s celebration has become a rallying cry for regulation. Apprehending individuals who behave illegally online can be difficult.

An individual posting illegal content might be pseudonymous and their identity not readily ascertained. Or the user might be based outside the jurisdiction where legal proceedings have been initiated. If one service provider blocks access to content or removes a video or song, another user, or users, will almost certainly repost the material, giving it far more attention than it originally received and far wider distribution.

This phenomenon is so common it has been given a name, the Streisand Effect, based on Barbra Streisand’s extensive but ineffectual legal attempts to stop online publication of photographs of her Malibu, California beach house.

Tools for government control

Nevertheless, despite the assertion that technology has outpaced the ability of the law to regulate it, as a result of technological, economic and political changes, online speech on today’s internet is no longer beyond governmental control.

The vast majority of activity is not anonymous – it’s branded with a unique identifier that links details to a particular network account. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) collect and store which IP address information was assigned to what subscriber for billing and operational purposes. Moreover, online businesses increasingly collect IP address information to identify repeat customers, tailor services and target advertising.

These services associate IP address data with other information that can be used to profile, track, physically locate or otherwise identify a user. Governments and civil litigants are learning how to use this information to identify individuals. The old joke was that on the internet, no one knew you were a dog.

Today, everyone knows your breed and what kind of kibble you buy. Not long after the implementation of TCP/IP protocol, its creators decided that easy-to-remember domain names like or facebook. com were better monikers for networked sites than the original IP addresses, which consisted of a long string of numbers.

They set up the domain name system (DNS), a system of databases that translates unique identities into machine-readable addresses. Without accurate and cooperative DNS servers, users cannot find and connect to pages. DNS has become a powerful tool for governments to control the internet.

DNS redirection or filtering, called DNS poisoning, is increasingly common. The Chinese government uses this technique extensively. When a user attempts to connect to sites the government does not want them to access, he or she is simply redirected elsewhere. Domain names themselves are targets for government control.

In 2011, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency automatically shut down over 700 websites for alleged copyright infringement, including the sports streaming sites and and music site In many cases, ICE was able to seize these domain names without an adversarial hearing, meaning that website owners were not able to defend their practices in court.

The secrecy of the proceedings was another huge challenge. For both rojadirecta and dajaz1, the government eventually gave the names back, without providing probable cause for the seizure. But the harm was done. In a fast moving economic environment, a business that loses its domain name for even a few months is basically dead.

Governments have also found ways to control online expression by controlling the services people use to connect to the network: electricity providers, ISPs, broadband and cellular providers. Companies that lay power lines or fibre optic wires to users’ homes or operate cellular networks to which internet-enabled devices connect are usually highly regulated and have a cosy relationship with the government. In some countries, these services cannot operate without government approval.

The Arab Spring

During the 2011 protests the Egyptian authorities cut internet access

During the 2011 Arab Spring protests, some reports say that the Egyptian governmentsimply shut off power at an important internet exchange point where ISP lines connected to the network outside the country. The government contacted those ISPs that were not directly affected by this move and instructed them to discontinue services or risk losing their communications licences.

Similarly, Syria has only one domestic internet provider and it is owned by the government. So Syrian authorities have a direct avenue for monitoring, filtering and blocking traffic. Authorities in that country have also disconnected the mobile 3G network to prevent access through the phone network; they have been known to disconnect the electricity supply to control citizens during clashes between the military and protesters or rebel forces.

Unable to use normal means of communication, activists have no choice but to give news and footage to those who know how to circumvent bans so that the information gets out to the world. These kinds of wholesale shutdowns obviously produce a lot of collateral damage for ‘innocent’ users of electricity and communications services.

There is a public cost to this kind of obvious, direct censorship. In the case of Tunisia, the tactics were less obvious. There were reports that the government manipulated Facebook login pages to obtain activists’ passwords and delete their accounts, along with pages organising protests. During Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution, the government prevented citizens from accessing popular dissident websites and used DNS blocking to redirect activists attempting to organise protests via Facebook or Twitter. Since much of the data transmitted over the Iranian (and global) network is unencrypted, the Iranian government has an easy time spying on its citizens.

Blocking offensive material

Communications platforms like Gmail, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are ripe targets for censorship. In September, Google refused to delete the YouTube-hosted video The Innocence of Muslims, which depicted the Prophet Mohammed and insulted many around the world. The video has been widely regarded to be connected to attacks on the US consulate in Libya, in which the US ambassador and three other State Department employees were killed. As word of the video spread, there were violent protests around the world and governments faced demands to remove the video from the internet.

As a result of the protests, Google initially blocked access to the video in Libya and Egypt by blocking IP addresses associated with those countries’ ISPs so that they could not connect to the YouTube server. It also blocked access in India and Indonesia and, in response to government requests, in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. Google also blocked the video using geographical filtering. Eventually, it restored access in Libya and Egypt. The video continues to be accessible to the rest of the world and people in blocked countries may view the clip by routing requests through non-local IP addresses.

It’s not surprising that the video remains online – the First Amendment and a decentralised network guaranteed that. What’s surprising is that Google actually blocked the video. The company has such considerable international business interests that following local law in the jurisdictions concerned was in its best interests.

A purely US-based company or an online speech platform with no business interests might have chosen to do nothing. But these days it’s rare for an internet platform to ignore international demands for censorship or for user data. Companies have a potentially international user base and in order for them to exploit it, they increasingly give foreign government demands substantial weight, and not only when they have staff or assets on the ground.

When intermediaries like ISPs fail to comply, this doesn’t stop national censorship. Thailand has blocked the entire YouTube site for hosting videos that mock the Thai king. Turkey has blocked access to webpages about evolution. A decade ago, France successfully stopped Yahoo!’s local subsidiary from hosting auctions for Nazi memorabilia and fined its US division for failure to block French users. Today copyright holders are pressuring European ISPs to block The Pirate Bay, a website dedicated to the sharing of copyrighted materials.

Network problems like unwanted spam and malware have encouraged providers to develop tools that can analyse and disrupt traffic. The economic consolidation of network providers and entertainment companies has encouraged conglomerates to look at favouring and disfavouring – essentially blocking – certain content or applications on their networks. Some countries are now asking these providers to block access to certain content, or to collect transactional data about users’ internet access for subsequent monitoring and potential prosecution.

In 2009, a German man convicted of murder sued Wikipedia and various news outlets for posting information about his crime, asserting his ‘right to be forgotten’, which is recognised in Germany. Wikipedia’s German language service removed the entry, but the English language version has so far refused.

In 2010, Italy criminally convicted three Google executives in response to a YouTube video depicting a disabled child being bullied. Though the content was removed within hours of the company receiving notification, the court faulted it for not screening the video prior to posting. And a court in Brazil ordered the arrest of Brazil Google’s senior executive for failing to remove a video critiquing a mayoral candidate, which violates local election laws.

Also in 2010, various US businesses and government agencies took steps to block the WikiLeaks website after it published a classified cache of leaked diplomatic cables. Private companies, including Amazon and PayPal, stopped doing business with WikiLeaks on the grounds that it violated their terms of service, although, according to reports, the US State Department encouraged the decision. Copyright is a particularly salient cause for censorship in the West.

In one you-can’t-believe-it’s-true example from earlier this year, Amazon remotely deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from Kindle devices because the books had been added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have the rights to distribute them. No censor could ever hope to seize and burn every paper copy of Fahrenheit 451, and yet digital books can easily be disappeared.

The end of the global network?

Today, our global network is evolving into a parochial one. China already has its own surveilled and monitored internet. Iran is in the process of creating its own domestic network and has started blocking American companies like Google from providing online services to its citizens. As companies block or are blocked in compliance with international assertions of sovereignty from countries around the world, we are in danger of fragmenting the network along national borders.

International efforts to regulate the network are even more frightening. Taking place behind closed doors, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations organisation representing 193 countries, is reviewing international agreements governing telecommunications with a view to expanding its regulatory authority over the internet.

During the meeting, many countries hope to seize power over internet policy, taking it out of the hands of the US. Authoritarian and democratic countries would have equal say. Of those 193 countries, 40 of them currently block or otherwise censor the internet. Voices around the world, including the US Congress and Vint Cerf, one of the creators of TCP/IP, have called for the ITU to keep its hands off the internet.

Under the ITU, the internet would be pushed towards the lowest common denominator, with the potential for rampant civil rights abuses, widespread surveillance and fragmentation of creative and political freedoms. Most experts believe that the days are long gone when internet companies could simply follow US law alone.

Some international legal regulation of the internet is inevitable. Still, it’s important for any changes to be made slowly and incrementally, and to be aware that any major changes applied to internet technology or its network might be hard to reverse. Nations must understand the risk of fragmentation and companies must resolve to restrain sovereign demands.

Multi-stakeholder agreements on how to manage cross-border problems, even without the force of law, may alleviate the urgency of addressing some online crimes. Choices made by communications intermediaries, rather than just governments, will continue to have a disproportionate effect on individual freedoms, so we must be very careful about imposing liability on those platforms for their users’ conduct.

Policy should encourage provider diversity and network neutrality, or else deviation from the internet’s original design as a global, open network will threaten economic growth, creativity and political activism. None of these precautions will be taken, however, until we accept the fact that the law is, indeed, catching up with the internet.

Jennifer Granick is an American attorney and educator. She tweets from @granick

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Free expression in the face of violence


A peaceful protest against the Innocence of Muslims in London – Brian Minkoff/Demotix

The Innocence of Muslims controversy put a spotlight on whether offensive online content should be censored or criminalised, as violence in Egypt, Libya and beyond meant many were tempted to argue for the removal of the video from the web.

Most states have laws to control clear and direct incitements to violence; but causing offence is neither an incitement to violence nor a reason to respond with violence. Yet since the initial protests, many countries have queued up to ask Google to block the offending video. Google initially blocked it in Egypt and Libya without even a government request, and then unblocked it.

Should companies, rather than governments, ever be the censors — arbiters of acceptability? Is it more palatable if companies are served with court orders to block access to Internet content? Or that, in keeping with its policy to abide by local laws, Google blocked the video in India and Indonesia because it was ruled illegal?

But more importantly, has a clear line been drawn between the direct incitement to violence (which should absolutely not be protected as free speech) and whether people choose to respond with violence to something they find offensive?

Rwanda is often cited as a case where the balance between safeguarding free speech and preventing violence is particularly relevant, given the severe ethnic conflicts resulting in the 1994 genocide following callings for violence. Local officials and government-sponsored radio incited ordinary citizens to kill their neighbours, and those who refused to kill were often murdered on the spot. The genocide-inciting radio broadcasts shouldn’t have been allowed. There is a clear dividing line.

But The Innocence of Muslims is not in the same category. And if Internet censorship is used because there is crowd violence — and in anticipation of violence, where does it end?

“The big story here is the crack-down on the Internet” William Echikson told me in a telephone interview from Brussels.  “The pressures have grown dramatically. And we are doing our best to protect free expression. ”

Echikson is Head of Free Expression Policy and PR, Europe, Middle East & Africa at Google.

According to different reports, Innocence of Muslims was also blocked in India, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia as a result of court orders. Google also blocked the video in Malaysia after receiving an official complaint from the Communications and Multimedia Commission, according to AFP. Reporters without Borders said the video was also blocked in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia via court orders on grounds of being “extremist”. And in Pakistan, it was blocked by the Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, who issued a directive to the Ministry of Information Technology.
The key, original censors here seem to be violent demonstrators and restrictive governments. Of the 150 countries where Google operates, in about 30 its service has been “affected one way or the other”, adds Echikson.

Governments are indeed cracking-down on the web, either because they already censor blasphemous and other offensive material (even without any likelihood of violence) or because they are giving in to actual or threatened violence. But if governments continue doing that, couldn’t it become an incentive for any fanatical group to threaten or act violently, and get censorship as a result? Isn’t this very similar to the mechanisms of terror: you terrorise or hurt one to scare a thousand?

That is why it is so vital that everyone understands the difference between incitement to violence, and violence in response to offense, an idea that, weeks after the video furore, has vanished from the agenda.

A country such as China may shed some light on where we are heading.

After a series of huge protests and ethnic riots (many of which were organised using instant messaging services, chat rooms, and text messages), China is reported to have intensified its efforts to neutralise online criticism. According to Amnesty, China has the largest number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world, while the number of “Internet police” is rumoured to be higher than 30,000.

The reason for all this  political censorship.

Many of the violent reactions to The Innocence of Muslims were for political reasons, using offence as an excuse. In fact, some analysts and US officials have reported that Benghazi attack of 11 September, which killed the US ambassador to Libya, appeared to have been planned in advance, and had nothing to do whatsoever with the video.

So for the Internet, where does all this end? With the annihilation of McLuhan’s global village and the beginning of a new era of of separate, isolated, over-scrutinised, parochial Internets.

Miren Guitierrez is editorial director of Index on Censorship