"Innocence of Muslims" is farthest from innocence by any standards. But its global impact and the continued apprehensions of unrest and violence is qualitatively no different from the satirical cartoons of Prophet Mohammed published by Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper in 2005. Or when Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" attracted a fatwa from Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988 to execute the author, or even when now-exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen's book sparked riots on the streets of Kolkata.
Provocative or malevolent content, disseminated in the garb of free speech, does create ill-will, hatred and misunderstanding. Then there are threats, big and small, as well as consequent vulnerabilities. There also are perceived risks for individuals, nationals of a country or followers of a faith, which are usually addressed politically, diplomatically and ultimately, time douses the fire and eases the episode into the annals of history.
But this time, the internet has been the differentiator.
The Arab Spring and the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi may have been two extreme examples of how the viral spread of information on the internet can impact and abet social behaviour. But it was influence nevertheless. Thanks to social media, coupled with the muscle of search engines, nothing is forgotten so soon. Even if it is, it takes a single spark to rekindle the fire for renewed impact. That's how the "Innocence of Muslims" is a more evolved and a more potent hate tool - it's a video, and it's on social media, which virtually rules out its complete arrest.
Talking of the internet, this latest YouTube film controversy has precipitated an interesting scenario. Governments of many countries, the United States and India included, have been compelled to deal with a commercial enterprise, to help them maintain law and order, prevent social unrest and violence. And Google's refusal to heed the White House's diktat on the removal of the controversial video completes the frame. Laws of the land now have to rub shoulders with a commercial enterprise's policies, no matter how opaque and the ultimate decision may well go against the state.
It is not every day that governments of major countries would vie with a company. While governments have cited their assessments of potential flashpoints, to seek removal of the offensive film, Google has retorted with its own policy guidelines. It has indeed blocked access selectively, in response to individual government requests - Egypt, Libya, India, Indonesia and Malaysia - all countries with a sizeable Muslim population. It may accede to more such requests. Pakistan has already ordered YouTube to be blocked. Some more countries may follow suit.
But the moot point is that the controversial video stays on YouTube - Google is in control. It has said no to the United States. And it can say no to others too, if it wishes. Facebook and Twitter have also had to deal with government requests before, albeit in lesser degrees. But Facebook and Twitter are just social networks. They can be blocked, if push comes to shove. Some countries do that to suit their political conveniences.
The Communist regime in Vietnam blocks Facebook a week before raising petrol prices, just to nip dissent in the bud, and lifts the ban a fortnight after the protests die down. Pakistan has announced a blockade of YouTube. But with a leviathan like Google, which controls Gmail, YouTube, Orkut, Picasa, Blogger, Google Plus, apart from the browser, Chrome, blocking Google would amount to virtually shutting down the internet. Well, almost! And that in turn can have disastrous ramifications for businesses which depend overwhelmingly on Google apps, products and services.
Google, with its overwhelming market share, is virtually on the cusp of determining what's wrong or right for law and order, governance, social impact, and most obviously, for business, as long as we are talking about the internet. So while individual governments are unable to enforce geographical jurisdictions in the virtual world, Google's writ runs large, and how! But being powerful has never been a crime. If Google is powerful, it is because it is too big and controls too many lives, livelihoods, businesses, and possibly some portions of economies. It's a child of its innovative zeal and vision. Kudos. But the graph, when drawn forward, is worrisome.
For India, a subtle point of reference can be had from history. From the entry of the British East India Company in the early 17th century, purely as a trading company, eager to do business with a resource and mineral-rich Indian landmass, its subsequent political subjugation of India was greatly steered by mounting commercial ambitions. It would be both ridiculous and naïve to suggest parallels here. Google's intent is purely driven by technological advancement and business growth, while its influence and control are corollaries. It has now reached proportions where Presidents and Prime Ministers of countries now have to engage with the Google top brass to solve issues of governance and diplomacy. That's eerie.
Google is treading an ambitious growth path, making conscious efforts to create favourable conditions for its own businesses vis-a-vis competition. It is facing stiff anti-trust litigations in multiple countries, including the United States, the European Union, India, South Korea and others. It has already been accused of privacy infringements, copyright violations and unethical practices. Cases are still being argued. Some, Google may win. Some, it may stand to lose. But no one denies, not even Google itself, that they control way too much!
Is it time then for governments to come together, possibly on the lines of the Geneva Convention, to sign on a single set of laws that can govern and control the internet? And it needn't be censorship in any form. Democratic governments, hopefully, will have enough public pressure to provide the right checks and balances. As EU Competition Commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, had recently stated, an anti-trust settlement with Google must have global applicability.
The alternative is visible on the horizon. Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Google, is set to become the most powerful man on the planet. Perhaps! (Global India Newswire)
(Saurav Sen is a senior digital media professional and consultant based in New Delhi.)