Posted 21 February, 2013 by Alix Dunn

Crowdsourcing Censorship in Egypt

In the aftermath of the Innocence of Muslims debacle, several countries were pressured — by public outrage, pressure from Muslim clerics and institutions, or Islamists in government — to do something to make sure that the blasphemous film never saw the light of day again.

In Egypt, courts ruled that all sites hosting content from the film or linking to content from the film should be blocked. This proved difficult, so the courts explicitly demanded a 30-day ban on YouTube (the site that hosted the offending clips that fueled the turmoil). More on that from EFF and EIPR and the Guardian.

The communication ministry quickly announced (after pressure from telecommunication companies) that a YouTube ban would be impractical and too expensive (not to mention, illegal).

But the censorship mission didn’t stop at a failed attempt to block YouTube. The National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (NTRA) was on the case. They stated on their website that they were willing to carry out the YouTube ban, and that they were only waiting for a copy of the verdict from the court. When the communication ministry announced that this ban would be expensive and impractical, the NTRA decided to innovate. They decided to crowdsource censorship!

Here’s how it works:

If you see a website that is linking to Innocence of Muslims content or is hosting Innocence of Muslims content, you go to this website type in the offending url, fill out a captcha, and click submit. Then, ostensibly, the NTRA reviews the submission, determines if the website does in fact meet the criteria for being blocked, and if so, poof, the site is blocked for those in Egypt. It’s impossible to know what will happen if urls unrelated to Innocence of Muslims are submitted.

New websites pop up every day, so, unfortunately for those working to stop nasty things from being said online, scouring the internet to block offensive content is a Sisyphean task. But if the right innovation is applied, there is no task too large on the internet, all you have to do is leverage the public and crowdsource the effort!

6 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing Censorship in Egypt”

Becky Hurwitz says:

This is like the inverse of herdict.
‘Herdict is a user-driven platform for identifying web blockages as they happen, including denial of service attacks, censorship, and other filtering’

Alix Dunn says:

Ha! Yes it is. It would be great if the site would allow for real-time review of data on the urls being submitted the way Herdict does.

Ludwig Holmberg says:

Wait, let’s not have such a kneejerk reaction. So, citizens are telling their government that they’d rather not see something on the Internet. The government responds and blocks it. How is this categorically different than the creation of laws in the U.S. which are lobbied for by a small minority and which only benefit that minority? Witness much of the “riders” in bills passed by congress. Alaska’s bridge to nowhere, anyone?

Censorship from above by government or censor decree is one thing. People simply not wanting to see something and asking their government to respect their wishes is something completely different. In the purest sense of the word, it’s actually democratic to censor in this way.

Culture and government are much more intertwined in the Middle East, and it seems to me bizarre to attempt to judge another cultural context by our own context via an abstracted idea like “freedom of information” – which by virtue of the cultural differences would seem to favor our own viewpoints. If, on the other hand, we renamed this trope “freedom from undesired content” or something similar, then moving away from the ahistorical excessive emphasis on the individual in the west we are the real and historical problematic minority. In other words, cultures and peoples have a right to decide – collectively – what they want or do not want to read, see, or know about. People also have freedom *from* information if they choose (see Nietzsche) which need not necessarily be an imposed re-scaling to the individual level but can also exist, democratically, at the local, regional, state, or national level should citizens desire. Cheers to Egypt for broadening their concept of democracy beyond the narrow “freedom of everything” concept from the West in ways that they see fit and which fit their history, culture, and ideals – in other words recognizing the uniqueness of being Egyptian rather than mindlessly imitating the West. If this is not to their liking, it can be changed again as it was not a few years ago.

Alix Dunn says:

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Ludwig. The post presents information about a tactic (ironically, one that is often used by advocates and activists) being used by a government to carry out a court order to censor internet content. I will let others more eloquent than I lay out arguments as to why censorship and freedom to information is an important human right.

Jillian C. York says:

Hi Ludwig,

First off, I would challenge you on your assumption that this is a democratic measure. From what I can tell, an opaque government agency put up a website to crowdsource additional censorship, with no transparency and accountability (not to mention no publicity, which means that only those who would visit the website anyway would come across the site). But as that’s not the most alarming comment in your post, I digress.

While it’s certainly true that some Egyptians would like to see a heavily censored Internet, it is again an incorrect assumption that Egyptians as a culture have made such a decision (again, where’s the democratic choice?) Indeed, in the past, and continuing into the present, the Egyptian government has disproportionately targeted certain groups for speaking out: Copts, anarchists, leftists. With that in mind, how does this plan provide for minority protections? Today, the crowdsourcing is targeting speech offensive to Muslims…what if tomorrow it targets speech critical of the Muslim Brotherhood? Would you still defend it? That’s what the slippery slope of censorship typically looks like.

Second, you don’t seem to be aware of the issues presented by introducing mass filtering technologies. Thing is, once it’s in place, it becomes ripe for abuse. One need only look to the Australian example—in which a teenager cracked the government’s blacklist and found the websites of a dentist and a restaurant categorized as pornography and blocked as such—to understand the extreme limitations of such tech. And while in any country, I would have concerns about an opaque government agency abusing its powers and overblocking (again, just look at the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation), I’m particularly concerned about the Egyptian government doing so.

Ludwig Holmberg says:

Hi Jillian et al.,

Certainly none of us in the US actually counts the votes or sees how democratic the system truly is. We trust others that the vote counts are accurate – that’s just a fact. To the vast majority, then, it is just as opaque a system as this crowdsourced initiative. Assuming Egyptians trust this agency then it is an article of faith that it is democratic and operating on sound principles – just like our vote-counting system and procedure in the States. I am always wary of individuals positing – in an Orientalist fashion – that third world agencies and systems are opaque when so much of what is done in our name in the US – slaughtering of thousands via drone strike, for instance – is just as opaque. Certainly we have a greater degree of openness here on *some* things, but using absolutist language like opaque and transparent actually hinders discussion.

While I certainly agree that all governments favor certain groups over others – scholarly literature on poverty in the US gives an example in a democratic nation – the issue is not a perfect protection of minorities as that does not exist anywhere on earth. At one level everyone is a minority of oneself – much of the ties that bind us are illusionary or fabricated (see Benedict Anderson) and so even the concept of minority becomes immensely problematic. Ideally, then, as I see your argument the problem is not one of the minority, but rather the idea that the colonialist creation of Egypt in the Western nation-state model is the issue. That such a diverse group of individual human beings cannot possibly be reasonably represented or governed by such an abstract entity as the Egyptian government. That is something that is reasonable to discuss, but once we venture into the topic of protecting minority rights we then begin to arbitrarily decide *who* is a minority. Certainly groups have the democratic right to decide what they want or don’t want – be it if they don’t want crime or if they don’t want certain types of information. The issue is the fact that Egypt is a colonialist entity which – as you rightfully argue – incapable of dealing with the diversity present on the ground.

Regarding mass-filtering technologies – it is not the introduction of those which is the issue. The structure of the Internet itself – the ways in which information is represented, sorted, and exchanged – lends itself to being open to filtering. In other words, filtering is in the Internet’s “bones”. Blaming the filtering technologies is a non-issue: the issue of Internet censorship is structural in the Internet itself as well as cultural. The potential to filter (and to circumvent, mind) is embedded in the protocols as well as embedded within the culture which seeks to act upon the potentialities in those protocols.

I am certainly not arguing for censorship, but rather that for “freedom to information” to be a freedom, a human right, the converse has to be respected as well otherwise it becomes a dictate – an order – resembling a totalitarian imposition of “freedom to information”. Individuals and groups must have the right to decide for themselves what they want or do not want to have access to in order to further and promote their own collective or individual visions of their mores and values. However, the idea that the decision should be forced on individuals rescales society to the level of the individual and away from a collective society itself. It then seems that the same problem which Montesquieu hints at plagues us: namely, whether or not democratic (or let’s expand that in keeping with my theme – social/cultural as well) institutions can survive at larger scales. The U.S. has staked its opinion and it seems as if Egypt is stating its own. They are different ways of dealing with this problem: one individualistically and one collectively.

Thanks for the interesting debate, I have enjoyed it but will no longer reply as I do have to attend to things which are less interesting but more financially fruitful than this wonderful discussion.

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