Egypt Independent

Tech experts brush off YouTube ban



Information technology experts dismissed a court order issued Saturday banning YouTube in Egypt for a month for hosting the highly controversial film “The Innocence of Muslims,” widely deemed anti-Islamic.

The Cairo Administrative Court ordered the prime minister, the communications minister and the National Telecom Regulatory Authority to enforce the verdict immediately. The government, however, can appeal the verdict.

In an official statement sent to Egypt Independent, Google said the company had “received nothing from the judge or government related to this matter.” Nonetheless, experts say the ban is not feasible.

The ruling came after lawyer Mohamed Hamid Salem filed a lawsuit last month, alleging that the amateur film produced in the US that mocks Prophet Mohamed was a “Zionist plot” and a “dirty war against Muslims and Islam.”

The Cairo court has also ordered the government to ban all other websites that showed the “The Innocence of Muslims.”

The Communications Ministry is yet to issue a statement on the matter.

Ramy Raoof, a human rights activist who specializes in information and communication technology, said the impracticality of imposing the ban is twofold. On one hand, a decision to ban any website is costly, he said, and on the other, the Communications Ministry is reluctant to support centralized censorship.

“The Communications Ministry doesn’t approve of censorship, it rather endorses decentralized censorship, which allows each individual user to block the website of their choice,” he said.

In November, former Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud ordered the government to block pornographic websites, in response to a 2009 court ruling. However, Communications Ministry officials have said blocking porn sites would be technically difficult.

Raoof also explained that a decision to block or ban any website would cost Egypt money and human resources it cannot afford.

“Even if we have this kind of money and human resources, they are better off invested in something else other than blocking websites,” he said.

The rights activist said blocking a website is technologically and financially impractical, since it would require the purchase of very expensive software and tools to monitor Internet traffic in Egypt, which would in turn weaken its speed and have negative consequences on search engines.

He concluded that blocking websites is unsuccessful overall since users find legal and legitimate alternative ways to access said websites.

“You have China, a blocking mogul, but people there are operating fine and accessing all kinds of websites because they found loopholes,” he said.

A technology expert who preferred to remain anonymous also echoed Raoof’s opinion, saying blocking YouTube would be “technically impossible.”

There are solutions, however, the ministry can employ in coordination with Internet Service Providers, he said, where the latter would use a “filtration” system and redirect any users visiting YouTube to another website.

“But this is still a very weak solution, people will still find a way around it,” the expert said.

Whether Google will respond to the court order remains unclear; however, the information technology expert explained that blocking YouTube will have an adverse effect and encourage users to upload more controversial videos.

“The court order doesn’t make sense, it will hurt rather than help,” he said.

He explained that YouTube’s benefits outweigh its harms.

“Think of YouTube as a car manufacturer — someone can use this car to transport their sick mother to the hospital, while another can use it to bomb a place. It’s not about the car, it’s about how people use the car,” he explained.

By the same token, he said, YouTube and Google at large are merely tech providers — they cannot control how people use them.

Economic implications of the one-month block are also yet to be seen; however, according to the IT expert, Google will not see any severe losses.

“Google is a huge company which generates around [US]$80 billion a year. The revenue coming from Egypt is relatively small so while the ban might have an impact, it’s going to be meager,” he explained.

Google has refused to remove the film from YouTube despite international pressure, although the company blocked the trailer in Egypt, Libya and other Muslim countries. The Pakistani government banned YouTube last September over the film.

The court order comes as bad news to operations whose main presence relies on the video-sharing website.

However, Di Salata, an interactive online video magazine, offering a platform for free expression, is not worried.

The video magazine hosts eight shows on a range of topics: fashion, cinema, politics, motivational talks, poetry and interesting places to go. Some of its videos can generate more than 1 million hits on YouTube.

Ramez Youssef, presenter of Di Salata’s “Mish Impossible” (“Not Impossible”), said that while the ban would have an effect on the online magazine, the team is adamant on moving forward with the project.

“Even if they block YouTube,” Youssef said, “we will not stop making videos, we will upload them on CDs and flash memory sticks and distribute them on the street ourselves.”