By Deya Abaza
The decision by an Egyptian court to ban YouTube in the country for one month due to its continued hosting of an anti-Islamic film has attracted harsh criticism from human rights organisations, online activists, and disgruntled users of the video-sharing website.
The verdict was issued on Saturday in response to a lawsuit filed in September by lawyer Mohamed Hamed Salem, as Egypt and the Muslim world were rocked by deadly protests against the film. It orders the Egyptian government, through the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA), to ban YouTube and other websites carrying the controversial video and other anti-Islamic content for one month, during which time all such content should be removed.
"It makes no sense to ban all of YouTube because of one film; the film is just a pretext. They are testing Egyptian society's reaction to such verdicts, using religion as a pretext to facilitate imposing such restrictions," says Salma Said, member of the whistle-blowing citizen-journalist collective Mosireen, whose main film depository is a YouTube channel.
Said maintains that the decision is an attempt by the state to restrict access to politically sensitive information provided by sites like YouTube in recent years.
The harshness of the verdict has been the subject of confused speculation and unreserved condemnation from all sides.
Mohamed Al-Ansari, legal researcher at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, condemns the verdict as being in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Egypt is a signatory, which guarantees freedom of expression and information.
Al-Ansari adds that the decision to shut down YouTube in its entirety is such a disproportional response to the unrest caused by the video, six months after the events, that it can only be seen as an attack on free expression.
Google, which owns YouTube, temporarily blocked access to the video at the height of the backlash to the 'Innocence of Muslims' trailer in September, and subsequently flagged the video as "potentially offensive or inappropriate."
The internet giant refused to comply with a White House request to take down the video from YouTube, as the film, however offensive, did not violate its terms of service regarding hate speech.
Sherif Taher, political veteran and head of Frontline IT Consulting, considers the decree a "political stunt to make an example out of Google," for failing to completely remove the video.
Others dismiss the political dimension of the verdict. "The judge is probably unaware of the implications of his decision or the difficulties of enforcing it, especially in a case concerning the internet," says Salah Soliman, lawyer and founder of Al-Nakib Centre for Training and Democracy Support.
In Soliman's view, the decree represents nothing more than the Egyptian judiciary's awkwardness in dealing with the internet.
Indeed, the feasibility of enforcing the ban is itself still uncertain. For its part, the NTRA has vowed to enforce the ruling as soon as it is served with the court order.
Mohamed Al-Karamany, an IT consultant at Aramicon, affirms that it is technically possible and relatively inexpensive to block YouTube in Egypt by 80 per cent, though 100 per cent effectiveness would be significantly more costly.
Mosireen is undeterred by the technical aspects of the ban. Said is confident that these can easily be circumvented, via the use of proxies and other video sharing sites, adding, "They cannot stop information sharing anymore, except by completely shutting down the internet, like they did during the revolution."