A court in Egypt has ordered the government to block access to YouTube for 30 days after a film deemed insulting to Islam was uploaded to the video-sharing site.The film, "Innocence of Muslims," sparked off riots across the Muslim world in September.
The Associated Press (AP) reports that a judge Hassouna Tawfiq, made the controversial ruling in Cairo which incidentally is the city where the protests against the movie began before it spread to more than 20 countries with substantial Muslim populations. During the protests in Cairo in September, an angry mob scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy and brought down the US flag. According to AP, more than 50 people were killed in the protests worldwide.
Judge Hassouna Tawfiq, in his ruling, described the film as "offensive to Islam and the Prophet (Muhammad)." AP reports that government may appeal the ruling. Analysts also claim that based on precedent, it is unlikely that the ruling will be enforced.
According to the Cairo-based state news agency MENA, the order issued to the ministries of investment and telecommunication is effective immediately. MENA cited court documents that criticized YouTube, saying it “did not respect the belief of the millions in Egypt and it overlooked the state of rage that prevailed among Muslims."
A spokeswoman for Google, YouTube's parent company, said in a statement that Google has "received nothing from the judge or government related to this matter." According to Reuters, Maha Abouelenein, a Google spokeswoman in Cairo, also said the company had yet to receive any formal notification of the ruling.
An Egyptian-born Christian and US citizen produced the controversial movie "Innocence of Muslims." The movie reportedly portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, a licentious person and a child molester. The 14-minute trailer of the movie uploaded to YouTube is the subject of the recent Egyptian court ruling. The video is still available on YouTube with the warning: "The following content has been identified by the YouTube community as being potentially offensive or inappropriate. Viewer discretion is advised."
AP reports that a lawyer Mohammed Hamid Salim, filed the case against the Egyptian government, alleging that the film was a threat to Egypt's security. Salim's lawsuit in not the only one that has been brought against the government in relation to the "Innocence of Muslims" movie. Other cases are pending in Egyptian courts. One of the lawsuits calls for a ban on Google's search engine and demands the company pay a fine of $ 2 billion.
According to AP, Egypt's new constitution bans insulting religious messages under blasphemy laws. Blasphemy laws were also in effect under the government of the former President Hosni Mubarak.
Egyptian rights activists have noted, however, that the authorities often show reluctance to enforce bans against Internet sites. Activists say previous orders to block pornographic sites have not been enforced because of the high cost of implementation.
However, Reuters reports Egypt's National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority said it would abide by the court ruling as soon as it receives a copy of the verdict.
According to Gamal Eid, an Egyptian human rights lawyer, and executive director at The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, the judge's ruling reflects his ignorance about Internet technology. Activists say many Egyptian judges have very little knowledge of how the Internet works. Eid said the judge need not have made a ruling to block the entire site, he could have issued a ruling to block only those pages deemed offensive.
He said: "This verdict shows that judges' understanding of technology is weak. The judges do not realize that one wrong post on a website does not mean you have to block the entire website."
Eid said the decision to block YouTube was counterproductive. His group pointed out that there are thousands of videos on YouTube which promote Islam and its prophet which the order would also block.
According to Business Week, Egyptian activists are concerned about the order to block YouTube because they use the website to disseminate videos promoting human rights issues in Egypt. Amr Gharbeia, civil liberties director at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the order was pointless because the footage can be accessed from other websites. He said: “There has to be an awareness that there are people who have different opinions."
AP reports that Google had received requests last year to remove the video, but declined. However, it restricted access to it in some Muslim countries such as Egypt, Libya and Indonesia, where the video breaks specific laws. According to CNET, Google insisted that the film did not violate YouTube's community standards guidelines in the United States. YouTube said: "We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what's OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video -- which is widely available on the Web -- is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, we've restricted access to it in countries where it is illegal, such as India and Indonesia, as well as in Libya and Egypt given the very sensitive situations in these two countries. This approach is entirely consistent with principles we first laid out in 2007."
During the September protests, authorities in some countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan ordered YouTube blocked. The authorities in Saudi Arabia ordered all websites with access to the film blocked.
Last year, in a ruling considered only symbolic, a court in Egypt convicted seven Egyptian Coptic Christians and an American pastor based in Florida, who allegedly promoted the film. Although the court sentenced them to death, it is unlikely the sentence will ever be carried out.
Secular activists in Egypt have meanwhile expressed concern about the rising incidence of religiously motivated lawsuits in the country. Liberal activists are concerned that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power is emboldening Islamic groups to use the courts to limit freedom of speech.