This weekend, Cairo Administrative Court issued a 30-day ban order on YouTube and all other websites that host or link to content from the anti-Islam film “The Innocence of Muslims,” which was protested worldwide after footage from the trailer was shown on Egyptian television. The court’s ruling may force the hand of the National Telecom Regulation Authority (NTRA) and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT), which have refrained from pursuing such a ban themselves.
This is far from the first time that a court ruling has forced the NTRA to censor Internet content. In November 2009, an administrative court ordered a ban on all pornographic websites. The order declared that “freedom of expression and public rights should be restricted by maintaining the fundamentals of religion, morality and patriotism” and denounced pornographic content as “venomous and vile.” In November 2009, Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Abdel Maguid Mahmoud at the time, ordered government ministries to enforce this ban. The NTRA responded by sending letters to all ISPs requesting that they block all pornographic content. EFF expressed concern that this could mark the beginning of a centralized filtering regime, but the NTRA rightly declined to go that route, dismissing it as costly and ineffective.
The NTRA may have less leeway in the “Innocence of Muslims” ruling. The order to block all websites that host or link content from the video may be impossible without an expensive centralized Internet censorship apparatus, but the order to block YouTube is quite straightforward.
It is unclear what the court hopes to gain by temporarily blocking access to YouTube. YouTube voluntarily blocked access to the video in Libya and Egypt in mid-September, in violation of Google’s policy of only removing content if it is found to be in violation on their Terms of Service or in response to a valid court order. While many factors may have been at play, including violent protests and a reported call from the White House, EFF was deeply disappointed in the company’s failure to stand up for free speech in Egypt and Libya. To make matters worse, it appears that YouTube’s willingness to make an exception to Google’s policies and censor the video in Egypt did not go far enough for the Egyptian court. If YouTube was hoping that a little temporary censorship on a volunteer basis would save it from a nation-wide ban on their entire website, it has miscalculated badly.
While YouTube deserves to be shamed for its decision, the bulk of the blame should fall on the court, whose overbroad and potentially ineffective ruling demonstrates an alarming ignorance of how the Internet functions. By blocking YouTube, the Egyptian court blocks access to millions of videos besides “The Innocence of Muslims,” creating tremendous collateral damage to Egyptians access to knowledge and freedom of expression. Furthermore, the block could be easily circumvented by Egyptians using proxies or Tor. Censorship of popular widely-used websites such as YouTube makes everyone into a criminal and undermines respect for the law.
EFF and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights condemn this decision as an alarming step backwards for free expression in Egypt.