When, last autumn, a film that seemed to be created for the sole purpose of mocking Islam began to spread online, the urge to censor was too strong for the White House. Fearing that protests in Cairo triggered by the film, called "The Innocence of Muslims," would spread to other Muslim countries, the Obama administration made a call to Google — which owns YouTube — to ask the company to remove the video. While Google refused, citing free speech principles, they quickly blocked the video in Egypt and Libya, two places where protest had turned violent. The company also responded to legal requests to block the video from a dozen or so other countries.
When a terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi occurred amidst the controversy, media was quick to blame the film for triggering the attack. But slowly, the story began to unravel: The attack on Benghazi was too sophisticated to have been planned in just a week, and YouTube was hardly to blame in Egypt, where local television — which has far greater reach than the internet — had aired the film, falsely claiming its creation as an act of the American government.
In neither Egypt nor Libya did the film’s presence on YouTube trigger violence.
Rather, YouTube — or the internet as a whole — was simply an easy target. In the absence of a culprit, the internet can make a great villain: Egypt's government blamed it for the spread of that video; The Iranian government blames it for degrading the ethics and morals of its citizens, anti-cyberbullying advocates blame it for increased aggression, and just the other day, columnist Shiwani Neupane blamed it for killing 30 people in India.
The problem with blaming the internet is that it dissolves responsibility and engenders a paternalistic approach toward regulation. Rather than see the internet for what it is — a vehicle for communication, self-expression, and organization — the framing employed by Neupane treats the internet as the cause of such violence.
This view problematically assumes a simple solution: If a YouTube video or a message on Facebook is the cause of violence, then the fix is to ban or censor it.
And perhaps, in a perfect world, that would be a reasonable approach; out of sight, out of mind. But in reality, censorship fails to address the underlying societal tensions that cause people to take to the internet to instigate violence (in the same way that it fails to fix an ailing regime). Blaming and censoring the internet is convenient, but merely pushes the undesirable speech underground, often fanning the flames of hate.
Moreover, internet censorship is costly and ineffective. For all of the millions, or perhaps billions, that governments spend to implement it, it has failed to stop determined individuals (precisely those most likely to call for the overthrow of a regime or to commit a violent act) from accessing blocked content. Technological tools designed for circumventing it are diverse and abundant, and require little technical skill to use.
Rather than blame the internet for society’s ills, we should focus our time and effort on finding lasting solutions to our most pressing problems.