Well, I’m not a big YouTube user – to my shame I have never actually uploaded any video content – but I did miss it while it was unavailable. It had happened once before, some years ago, and a younger, more technologically savvy colleague gave me directions to a site that was able to bypass the blockage. As one might have expected, the government was on to that this time around, so the bypass no longer worked. Still, I’m guessing the younger generation in Turkey weren’t unduly disturbed by the ban, except as a matter of democratic principle.
Anyway, I’m delighted to see YouTube up and running again. It’s a marvellous resource, and a further indication of how the Internet and social media have changed our lives in ways that we could scarcely have imagined in that distant 20th century.
The blocking of YouTube (and, I understand, Twitter, though to my greater shame, I haven’t got into that at all) did, however, get me thinking about larger issues to do with social media, the Internet and the big question of censorship.
Much was made in Western news media of the role played by social media in events collectively referred to as The Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread rapidly to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and other Islamic states. The anarchy of the Internet was credited with empowering a switched-on younger generation to achieve greater political awareness and organize themselves in numbers sufficient to overthrow despotic regimes.
Sad to say, a return to military rule in Egypt and the disastrous ongoing civil war in Syria have taken the gloss somewhat off that brave new vernal world of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ – and as for ‘brotherhood’, that seems to have become a dirty word rendering further analysis unnecessary. Those much-vaunted social media, it seems, have their limitations when it comes to producing meaningful long-term political change.
Nevertheless, it’s disturbing when governments use their powers to censor our activities. We have come to depend on the Internet and social media so much in our daily lives that it’s hard to imagine a time when people lived in relative contentment without them. It was natural for people in Turkey to feel angry when their government blocked access to YouTube and Twitter. Some are also complaining that the same government is taking measures to control the sale and consumption of alcohol in public places, and to limit the display of naked female flesh on roadside advertising.
Now I have to tell you, I have mixed feelings about these issues. I confess I enjoy the occasional tipple of fermented and even spirituous liquors for relaxation and social purposes. I can appreciate the sight of a well-turned ankle as much as the next red-blooded male. On the other hand, I am well aware that my own homeland, New Zealand, and our near neighbor, Australia, not renowned either of them for alcoholic moderation, impose quite tight restrictions on the sale and consumption of such beverages. As an example, in Melbourne a couple of years ago, I went to Federation Square with my daughter and her partner to watch Australian Open tennis on the giant screen. One would expect a typical Aussie to enjoy a frosty VB or Fosters on such an occasion – but eagle-eyed private security boys were circulating to ensure that they did not.
I can also say that, despite the importance given to eye-catching advertising in subways and other public places in Auckland, Sydney, London and New York, I don’t recall seeing large-size posters of fetching young lasses clad in skimpy underwear or bikinis, of the kind that are commonplace on the streets of Istanbul. Not sure if there’s a law against it – it just doesn’t seem to be the done thing.
Which brings me to the question of censorship – and I have to tell you, I’m against it, as a matter of principle, as, I suspect, are most modern, broad-minded, right-thinking adults in Western societies. At the same time, I can understand why some people feel there should be some control over the dissemination of child pornography, and material depicting actual physical abuse. I have some sympathy for the argument that says children under a certain age should not be exposed to visual material deemed to be ‘adult’ in nature. Google and YouTube actually include such restrictions as part of company policy.
So we have a paradoxical situation here: a conflict between theory and practice which is not easy to resolve. If we accept that some measure of censorship is socially desirable, the question shifts to one of where we will draw the line – and who will have authority to draw it. Again, few of us have confidence in the willingness of private enterprise to regulate its own activities, so in the end, most of us would reluctantly accept that governments have a necessary role to play.
But now, of course, we have given a dangerous power to politicians who, as we suspect, are not always driven by an altruistic concern for the welfare of their people. In the end, those of us fortunate enough to live in democracies have the power of the ballot box where we can call elected governments to account. Between elections, we have the responsibility of participating in the democratic process by joining pressure groups, working for social change though NGOs, even taking to the streets in protest.
I have written elsewhere on the complex nature of democracy. Most writers on the subject agree that there is a continuum from one extreme of absolute slavery to the other of absolute individual freedom – and most countries lie somewhere on the line between. In fact there may even be several components of democracy, such as press freedom, representative electoral systems, separation of church and state, limitations on corporate power, for example, and countries may be ahead in some while lagging behind in others.
The United States and Europe, for example, place, as far as I am aware, no restrictions on the use of social media such as Twitter and YouTube, and some of their political leaders have been outspoken in their criticism of the Turkish Government for doing so.
On the other hand, they seem to see no contradiction between their position on this matter, and what some might see as a greater danger – their willingness to persecute individuals who use the power of the Internet to question the activities of governments and corporations. I’m thinking here of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – still, as far as I know, holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, threatened with deportation if he emerges; Edward Snowden, epic whistleblower stripped of his US passport and similarly unable to leave Russia; Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking information many of us think we had a right, even a need, to know. I wouldn’t put New Zealand’s very own Kim Dotcom in the same league as those guys, but nevertheless, I appreciate the light he is shining on the shenanigans of politicians downunder.
What is important, in my opinion, is the responsibility we all have to speak out against corruption and injustice wherever we see it, although doing so will not necessarily win us friends and public acclaim. Our voice of protest, however, will possess greater credibility if we nail our colours to the mast, rather than maintain a safe electronic distance via social media on the Internet. For me, the greatest figures of history are those who were willing to sacrifice personal comfort, even life itself, to achieve a greater social goal:
|Not everyone will thank you
for wanting to change the world
Mahatma Gandhi in India, whose 32-year struggle brought no personal wealth, ending in his own assassination – but resulted in independence for his people.
Jesus of Nazareth, who challenged the establishment of his time in unacceptable ways, knowing that they would kill him for it in a most unpleasant way.
Even Turkey’s own Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Despite widespread public adulation, he assuredly faced opposition from vested interests in his own lifetime – and denied himself the important Turkish dreams of family and dynastic succession for the greater goal of building a nation.
And to be fair, that’s why I don’t rank Mr ‘Megaupload’ Dotcom with that other triumvirate of Internet heroes. I’m not convinced there is quite the same spirit of self-sacrifice underlying his actions.
Well, YouTube is back, and I’m happy. I would, however, make a plea to armchair political activists wishing to bring down the Turkish Government. By all means express your views, but at the same time show a little consideration for your fellow citizens who enjoy using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for less controversial purposes.