Mar 252013
 
 March 25, 2013  Posted by  Tagged with: , ,

Meet Blær. She’s a fifteen year old girl from Iceland, and her name roughly translates to “light breeze”. Nothing unusual there, right? Except for the fact that her name is banned. According to the Icelandic government, her name is Stúlka (which is Icelandic for ‘girl’). In 1991, Iceland implemented the Icelandic Naming Committee to ensure that its newest citizens weren’t given un-Icelandic names. In classic bureaucratic fashion, the committee drafted a list of approved names. But this is Iceland, after all-a relatively progressive Nordic nation. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is a way to circumvent this list and get your name approved. The only problem is that the committee is composed of a whopping three people, nominated by three different groups (the University of Iceland’s Philosophy and Law departments and the Icelandic Naming Committee, which is a government group dedicated to the preservation of the Icelandic language). It seems to me that this might be a group that is perfect for determining whether or not a name is linguistically appropriate, but something tells me they’re going to be hostile towards new names.

In some ways, I wonder why the United States doesn’t have a list of approved names. Everybody has known somebody with an unusual (and possibly cruel) name. But that said, language and names both evolve. It’s natural, and probably inevitable (though some countries may disagree). As we move into an increasingly globalized world, many nations and cultural groups are seeking out ways to ensure that their customs are not forgotten. However, I’m not sold on the idea that hampering individual expression, particularly with regard to names, is required to preserve culture. Given that people often strongly identify with their name (and it is the most common identifier of individuals), it is important for governing bodies to also understand the significance of rejecting or forcefully changing a person’s name.

Apart from the continued rejection of an individual that a name revocation of sorts can have, Blær’s case is particularly unfortunate because her name was deemed appropriate-had she been male. That’s right-Blær is a great, masculine Icelandic name. This raises an interesting question of how gender norms are rooted in culture, and how cultures can be preserved while maintaining and promoting equality. While many languages have defined gender conventions for many words, I think it is safe to say that modifying the convention can be appropriate in certain situations (such as calling a female deliverer of mail a mail carier as opposed to a mailman), though this almost definitely modifies the original language. Still, equality seems like a justified cause for the loss of complete lingual accuracy. As for Blær, she and her mother appealed the decision, with the district court ruling in their favor. Hopefully, Iceland will revisit their naming policies in the near future.

Nov 092012
 
 November 9, 2012  Posted by  Tagged with: , ,

This summer, on my commute to work on the New York City Subway 6-Line, my normal morning nap was interrupted by a fog horn-like voice. After unsuccessfully trying to drown it out with Taylor Swift, I tuned into the speaker’s words.

Unlike the usual subway preacher/ rapper/ drum artist/ con artist with an upbeat message, this man was proclaiming eternal damnation for everyone (in very graphic terms): Asians, Jews, Russians…the list went on and on. I was grateful when an MTA police officer asked the man to step off my train.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fykWJLkydGA

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Oct 032012
 
 October 3, 2012  Posted by  Tagged with: , ,

Yes, Google currently holds power of regulating speech through YouTube.  And yes, Google shapes the way they control speech by using the American ideal of free speech.  Their policy is designed to give Google a very limited approach to regulation.  In fact, one could argue that since they follow other governments’ laws, other nations are actually the checks and balances for this company.  Whether they should have this power is irrelevant, because it already lies in their hands.  What is worrisome is how a government or a company decides to regulate their power of speech.

Recently the video, The Innocence of Muslim was tied to the violence occurring in Libya and other countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa, as Grace posted about earlier this week.  YouTube hosted the video, but decided to take down the video in Egypt and Libya even though they had already determined that it did not violate their terms of service.  Why did Google decide to violate its normal ways of regulating YouTube?  They issued a statement saying these were extenuating circumstances.  In this case, the fact that violence was tied specifically to this video shows that Google tried to make the situation better with the options that were available to them.  Other countries, including the U.S., requested that Google remove the video from YouTube, and were denied. Numerous countries that made this request did not have any violence occurring that was tied to the video. Not to mention, Google rarely ever complies with such requests, so any acquiescence would have been unusual. If Google had complied, their role in regulation would increase, which evidently Google wants to prevent.

Other videos exhibiting acts of violence like the video showing the former U.S. Ambassador to Libya moments before his death have also not been taken down.  You may wonder if this maybe classifies as an extenuating instance, but this video has not incited violence nor is it hate speech.  Taking down videos like this could make Google more susceptible to the numerous requests they receive concerning the removal of videos.        While legally Google does have the right to take down any video, whether they use it or not people are similarly free to use Google’s services or not.  I feel that Google has chosen to give the power back to the people as much as possible through their lack of interfering with what is posted on Youtube.  Having the video on YouTube, doesn’t force anyone to watch it.  Google leaves it up to the current laws of a nation and the choices of its people to regulate.

Google’s business and moral interests are in alignment:  they largely do not want to control speech.  They’ve mostly taken a hands-off approach to regulation that coincides with the country the company originated in.  Some incidences occurred where Google played the moral police in subtle ways, like in the case of Ashley Madison website.  Google removed this website which helps to facilitate extramarital affairs, from autocomplete – making it more difficult to find unless you know what you’re looking for—and blocked its ads in the Google Content network.  Google had no right to begin blocking their ads or the website and should have followed their own rules of taking smaller role in regulating speech.  Look at it this way, if Google took a more active stance in regulation everyone would be aware of the beliefs of the people in charge.  If they were homophobic, chances are all of the videos concerning homosexuality would be removed.  If they were religious, anything that violated their beliefs could be removed.  If they hated violence, perhaps the Call of Duty commercials would no longer exist on YouTube.  Wouldn’t you rather they took a hand-off approach to regulation except for extenuating incidences like The Innocence of Muslims video?

 

Oct 012012
 
 October 1, 2012  Posted by  Tagged with: , ,

Google is by no means, “Big Brother,” but it certainly has been making some big calls recently, with regards to its decision to keep the controversial video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” on YouTube.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAiOEV0v2RM

Despite requests from the government of the United States, Bangladesh, and Russia, Google has maintained the video on its main site, and only blocked it in India and Indonesia, where it violates local law.  To justify its decision, Google asserts that the video does not violate its terms of service or constitute hate speech because it is directed against Islam, not Muslims as a group.

This recent controversy brings to light grave ethical and political implications.

Should Google be the only party to have jurisdiction over YouTube?  What does freedom of speech and press look like in a realm that transcends national, religious, and geopolitical boundaries?

Google’s recent actions are problematic in 3 ways:

  1. In an effort to preserve free speech, Google premises its defense on imposing a blanket principle that other countries and cultures may not subscribe to.  Satire of Islam may not qualify as hate speech in the United States, but it certainly does figure into the definition that many countries, such as Bangladesh, espouse.  (For different standards of hate speech around the world, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_speech). By refusing to take down the video, Google is forcing these countries’ hands in banning YouTube altogether – which is what Bangladesh has done, and what Russia is considering.
  2. By refusing to assume a “Big Brother” role, Google is ironically becoming “Meta-Big Brother.”  Although protests have erupted in more than twenty countries, Google has only temporarily blocked the video in Egypt and Libya.  In response to U.S requests to take the video down in other protest-ridden nations, Google has responded that it will do so if these situations become exigent.  This begs the question, since when did Google become the main arbiter of geopolitics? Given that Google removes videos that violate local copyright law, it should accede to local standards for hate speech as well.  With regard sensitive videos such as “The Innocence of Muslims,” Google can be “hands-off” by allowing governments to make the final call.
  3. Finally, Google needs more restrictions on permissible video content beyond its terms of service and prohibiting hate speech.  Although the “Innocence of Muslims” may not hit close to home for many Americans, the video of the former U.S Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens certainly does.  While it is certainly within the purview of Google’s policies to allow the video of former Ambassador Steven’s brutal treatment to be shown, is it ethical to allow the footage in light of the recent tragedy?

Google needs to recognize that the line between inaction and action is a dubious one.  Although it wants to be as unobtrusive as possible, the plight of the Modern Day Big Brother is that it has no choice but to involve itself in governing the internet realm.  Whether it chooses to keep the video up or to take it down is setting an unmistakable precedent.  Given that Google has already conceded that free speech needs to be reined in under certain circumstances, it should take the first step in further defining its place in the YouTube community.

*Not everyone agrees with my views. In fact, Kristian will be posting a rejoinder on Wednesday. Stay tuned!