Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Is anti-Semitism objectionable enought to be banned on YouTube?

Germany's Central Council of Jews is planning to press charges against YouTube for hosting videos that are anti-Semitic in nature. Right-wing extremists apparently use the free video platform for sharing and viewing propaganda videos inciting racial hatred. A few months back, Orkut too was in problem for hosting a community proclaiming its hatred for Bal Thackeray.

This raises a crucial question. Should we censor content on YouTube? Or for that matter, on any other site? And who should decide what should be censored? Difficult questions with no convincing answers. YouTube’s policy is to “encourage free speech and defend everyone's right to express unpopular points of view”. But it doesn't permit “hate speech which contains slurs or the malicious use of stereotypes intended to attack or demean a particular gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or nationality”. By that yardstick, I guess the Central Council of Jews is right to insist the videos be removed from the site.

But that still leaves us the question – Who decides if the video falls into that category? YouTube may have an answer. It urges viewers to flag a video if they consider it inappropriate. A clip is taken off when it comes to the notice of the staff at the video-hosting site with several “flaggings”. That is a far more civilized way to deal with attacks on freedom of expression rather than allowing an individual or a few to deal with it. Democratising opinion and enhancing broader participation has been the Internet biggest achievement.

In the real world, we are way off the mark in this debate. Often, the “offenders”, like M F Hussain or Taslima Nasreen, are threatened/attacked for expressing their views. There is little substance in the debate besides shrill vengeful rhetoric. So even if Hussain merits criticism, he doesn’t get it. He ducks under the cover of an assault on his “freedom of expression”. And even if Nasreen deserves to be panned for her searing hatred of Islam, she gets off the hook for being unable to express her opinion freely. It is reasonable to argue that these two would not have been as famous as they are today had it not been for the innumerable controversies centred around them. That is also the problem with the law that makes holocaust denial a crime in certain countries (many of them in Europe, including France). Why should such a law exist in liberal democracies? It only gives them cover whereby they claim an attack on their freedom of expression and draw sympathizers. Why cannot we let them express their views freely and let them be criticized openly and civilly by those who find it objectionable?

BTW, The New York Times still insists on printing all the news that is fit to print. Shouldn’t it change now? Isn’t all the news fit to print?


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