March 8, 2007 | By Danny O'Brien

Video: the New Kid for the Block

It looks like video sites are the new flashpoint in the battle against free speech online. Perhaps it is that many states control television broadcasts far more tightly than they control the press. Judges across the world clearly think they understand how to censor television - and are surprised when their attempts to do the same to video online don't work as effectively.

In January it was Brazilian judges who found themselves caught in a hailstorm of criticism when attempting to prevent all Brazilians from downloading a salacious video of a Brazilian celebrity. When the only method of obeying the order at local ISP's disposal was blocking all of YouTube from Brazil, Brazilian net users rose up and complained. The decision was overturned three days later.

This week, it was Turkey, whose Istanbul First Criminal Court ordered Turk Telekom to redirect its users away from YouTube to prevent them seeing a video that poured scorn on Turkey and the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

As in so many cases of government internet censorship, Turkey's reaction has affected the free speech rights of thousands of innocent parties, and done nothing to stop what they want to stop. The growing legions of Turkish net users were denied access to tools to share their own stories, while anti-Ataturk commentary still exists on YouTube and elsewhere. Meanwhile, nationalists inside Turkey found themselves unable to post their own responses to the video, meaning that the ratio of Turkey critics and supporters on YouTube no doubt lurched towards the critics. Those who agreed with the judges that this video was outrageous found themselves as effectively silenced as the video's maker. As one of the four college students who bravely petitioned the court Thursday, Kursat Cetinkoz, said:

"Banning access to the Website does not punish those who did that (posted the videos) but the citizens of the Turkish Republic."

It looks as if the court will now restore access now that the one video has been removed. To YouTube's credit, the company did not remove the video itself. Then again, it didn't have to: the original user appears to have deleted it from his or her account.

The reaction in Turkey, and fear of discovery and retribution by the creator may have played its part in that personal decision. For free speech online to grow, we need to have not only network operators that cannot be intimidated, but we also need safety through anonymity for speakers. Tor, and services like it, work for both viewers and writers. With Tor and other anti-censorship programs, bypassing the court's censorship was straightforward - and publishing via anonymizers helps give intimated speakers the confidence to stand their ground.


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