Thursday, September 13, 2012

Middle East sudden "blow-up" could have serious ramifications for user-generated Internet content in US. Remember SOPA?

The possible ramifications of the rioting in the Middle East in apparent response to a low-budget, apparently patently offensive film  (called “Innocence of Muslims”) available only on the Internet, are mounting and hard to predict.

The facts about the source of the film are changing rapidly, as are reports from the Middle East suggesting that the rioting might have been intended anyway by radical Islamists, and that they film played into their hands as an excuse.  That could well be the case, given precedence with several incidents (like the reprisals against author Salman Rushdie, the Jyllands-Posten Cartoon Controversy, and the film “Submission” by Theo Van Gogh, who would be assassinated). Have we seen this all before?

There have been calls that the US make it illegal to offend Islam on the Internet – obviously something that would violate our First Amendment.  But there could develop calls that service providers must screen postings for such offense – an idea similar to the challenge to downstream liability immunity we saw late last year with SOPA and Protect-IP.   As with SOPA, the Internet as we know it, with robust and free user-generated content, could not exist if service providers had to screen content (especially at home – they are already doing some of it abroad) to protect international stability.

It’s conceivable that radicals in the Middle East could try to leverage the US government or major corporate providers – with “threats” ranging from 70s-style oil embargos to cyber warfare or various other terror scenarios that have been discussed before.
A professor of Middle Eastern relations said to Anderson Cooper on his 360 show tonight that radical Islam – and indeed the culture of much of the middle East – does not believe it can afford to tolerate offense.  And by “offense” we mean something more than familiar epithets and blunt attacks, but any expression that seems to lack obvious benefit and is therefore interpreted as intended to provoke others into “eventual” harm.  But to some extent, in this psychological scenario, one can be “offended” only when one wants to be or finds it “politically advantageous”.

That happened to me when I was substitute teaching in 2005.  I told an intern teacher about my websites in response to a newspaper editorial. The next day, I got a call from the school assistant principal that she had been “offended”.  But it was really the school principal who was offended because my site had an experimental screenplay short (by me) of a teacher (resembling me) who is manipulated into “wrongdoing” by a student.  This is discussed here July 27, 2007.

Again, "Tolerate no offense. Tolerate no hostile purpose you can imagine in someone." That seems to be the mentality.

It extends, in some cultures, to families.  An outspoken person is seen as jeopardizing an entire family, or all those associated with him. 

Although the current incident relates to a (feature-length) “film”, it’s imaginable that it could happen with an online Kindle book (and Amazon did have a controversy a couple years ago after an Anderson Cooper report  -- Books blog entry Nov. 11. 2010) or even a single blog or blog post.  A “blogger journalist” who has set himself up to have to cover a wide range of topics (because of hidden relationships among the topics) could be perceived as instigating something merely for covering something else “gratuitously” when he has no obvious personal stake (as would be created by taking the "risk" of having or even adopting children).

The appearance of this (anti-Islam) “film” seems to be having the effect of a lighted cigarette thrown into a dry forest ( or, to use a smaller common trite metaphor, a “shout” in a crowded theater).  But on whose side did this start?  The “filmmakers”?  Or the radicals on their own?   It seems as though a lot of malevolent people know that young men with no jobs and no girlfriends are easily manipulated into "action". 

First picture: It looks "inciting" but actually it's an ad in the Washington DC Metro System (9/12/2012) from the American Lung Association. 

Second picture: An outdated camcorder, with some footage made in conjunction of the late Gode Davis's project "American Lynching" which ought to get rebooted.   

Update:  September 14

Commentators have noted that Mideast protestors complain that the United States government doesn't do enough to stop blasphempous films from going on the Internet or being exported.  Individuals in authoritarian countries don't seem to understand that individual people express themselves without the approval of government, even without any third party collaboration.  This fits into my concerns about downstream liability and SOPA.

This is a difficult concept for people who don't publish by themselves on the Internet to get.  At one time, back in 1997, I even thought that adult-id filters (as mandatory) could solve the problem of inappropriate content for minors, but by late 1998, after COPA had passed, I understood how the idea of spontaneous publication with the prospect that search engines will find you, really works.  
September 15:

The Washington Post today discussed YouTube's willingness to block the "offending film" (or excerpts from it) in specific countries, after the White House approached it about "terms of service" analysis.  "Clear and present danger" in a specific country can be a reason to block a particular item.  There is precedence for this, as pro-Nazi materials are blocked in Germany where they are illegal. 

Police have questioned one of the producers of the film about possible "supervised probation" violations in Internet use. 

However, protestors overseas seem to be implying that the US isn't "doing enough" in allowing the video to go out in the first place, and seem not to understand the separation between individual and collective speech. 

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