As most of us see it, “Internet safety” is a matter of taking commonsense precautions against identity theft, phishing schemes, malware infection, and the like. Online harassment, cyberstalking, and cyberbullying? Sure, these are bad things–often painful and on very rare occasion even lethal–but they are almost always of limited scope: one person against another. The events that began unfolding in the Middle East on September 11 should teach us to broaden our thinking about Internet safety. Given certain sets of personalities, motives, beliefs, and circumstances, Internet safety can become a global issue marked by violence of regional scope and tragic consequence.
Like many works of hatred, the video that apparently triggered assaults on U.S. embassies in Egypt and Yemen as well as a protest in Benghazi accompanied by a deadly RPG assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is shrouded in the squalor of obscurity The identity of the filmmaker is not definitively known, but the video appeared (as of this writing) to be the work of a “Coptic Egyptian fraudster” named Nakoula Bassely Nakoula. Apparently shot in the United States and shown fleetingly at a tiny Hollywood movie house toward the end of June, The Innocence of Bid Laden was posted to Internet on July 1 as The Innocence of Muslims. A trailer translated into Arabic was subsequently posted to YouTube, and it is this, which was also picked up and broadcast by Arab TV stations, that sparked the protests.
What Informed Comment blogger Juan Cole describes as “a low-budget bad propaganda film gotten up by two-bit frauds and Christian supremacists, and then promoted by two-bit Egyptian and Libyan fundamentalists” crudely mocks Muhammad. It is the video equivalent of an IED, amateurishly cobbled together, but its explosive energy was vastly amplified and ramified by the Internet. Doubtless this will tempt authorities–somewhere–to locate the source of harm not in these scraps of video, but in the instrument of their amplification and ramification, the Internet. We may hear calls for greater “regulation,” even if it suppresses free expression. In some places, these calls may even be acted upon.
Eleven years ago, on September 11, nineteen men hijacked airliners to do a great evil due to their intolerance of Western society, an act they purportedly did in the name of religion. This has not resulted in the suppression of airliners. Early in July of this year, the Internet was hijacked–by whom we do not yet know–to do another evil in the name of religion, one that has so far resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and four other Americans. It would be worse than misguided to allow this tragedy to provoke any attempt to suppress the Internet anywhere.
The answer to hatred on the Internet is not the suppression of the network. It is the more intelligent, sophisticated, and constructive use of the network. Recently, enlightened enterprises such as funf, SwiftRiver, Ushahidi, PAX, and others have been using the mobile web to create Internet platforms that are already delivering benefits to individual, regional, and even global welfare, wellbeing, and progress. Organizations such as these are developing ways to harness the capabilities of mobile devices to capture, record, process, visualize, map, disseminate, and analyze big data, including, for example, social network posts, video and photo posts, cell signals and call detail records, geolocation data, and e-commerce data. For a region, this may mean learning to understand trends in local development in order to improve the life, health, and wealth of the community. For a nation, this technology may enable beneficial changes in government and administration. For the world, mobile-centric big data projects may provide (as PAX aspires to create) “a global digital system to give early warning of wars and genocide.”
In this time of tragedy and tension, how fortunate we are that the Internet, humanity’s network of networks, is ultimately so much better suited to projects of connection than it is to squalid enterprises of division, hatred, and murder. Yes, the technologies of connectivity can transmit malevolence, but more naturally they tend to create empathy. It is Internet safety, global edition.