Why is it online forever?

It seemed like a familiar plot, someone publishes what they deem artistic, albeit offensive to Islam, Muslims get enraged, protests spread, so-called artists and their families go into hiding, embassies attacked, US and Israeli flags are burnt, dozens of protesters get killed, politicians urge calm, diplomatic crises erupt, handled and eventually resolved.

Amid the fallout over posting a trailer for the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” on YouTube, the White House requested that Google, the parent company of YouTube, remove it. Such a censorship request is troubling, certainly, and also absurd. Politics, religion and even free speech aside, it’s nearly impossible to permanently remove the film from YouTube or the internet.

The White House request to remove the trailer off YouTube seemed to spring from a genuine desire to take it off the Internet and put an end to the crisis. It’s yet another embarrassing demonstration of the lack of understanding of how the Internet works. Apparently, politicians sometimes have to be reminded of the clichéd adage: What happens online, stays online, forever.

Art  by Sarolta Bán

Here are the main reasons that keep data we share online from ever being consigned to oblivion:

1. Screen capturing: This one is a classic, available since the early days of computers. It’s a snapshot of what appears on your screen, whether it’s a webpage or a Twitter message. This practical tool is available on all PC and mobile operating systems and goes by many names; screen capture, screen shot, screen grab, screen dump and print screen. You’ll frequently encounter its use in action as you read the news. Here’s an example: The official Facebook page of the Israeli embassy in Ireland shared a “Christmas thought with its fans saying that if Jesus was alive today, being a Jewish man, he’d be lynched by Palestinians. After an outcry, the anti-Palestinian Christmas message was deleted and they published an apology, but not before an embarrassing screenshot was taken by someone somewhere and was distributed between media outlets.

2. Copying/pasting and “Save image as…” are among the oldest tricks for Internet users who could preserve anything you publish online in the form of text or images, by saving them onto their hard drives, to be shared and re-uploaded later, beyond your control, or even knowledge.

3. Republishing: On social networks, control over your content is minimal since tweets are retweeted, Facebook comments and photos reposted, and blog entries reblogged. In other words, whatever is republished by others, even after you delete it, still resides on someone else’s Twitter account, Facebook page or Tumblr blog, beyond your reach.

4. Caching and archiving: Older versions of webpages are preserved and could be accessed through search engines and web archiving services. For example, as Google indexes websites, it stores “cached” versions of most webpages, which are publicly accessible on their search results page. Furthermore, a web archive (such as Wayback Machine) retrieves archived webpages from several years prior.

5. Downloading videos: Some think that videos are the hardest to keep but that’s far from the truth, thanks to a plethora of software applications and online services that download videos off video-sharing websites such as YouTube. Just because a video has been deleted off YouTube doesn’t mean that it’s permanently gone. It could have been downloaded on PCs before it was deleted and also it could still be lurking online on social networks that you’re not able to access. A few months ago, I tried to find a video full of racist and hateful speech from a politician in the Middle East who claims to be a righteous man. To my disappointment, it was removed off YouTube and I was no longer able to expose him and share it with others. A few days later, I spotted it on the timeline of a Facebook friend. It was not a YouTube link to the deleted video, but it was the same video hosted on Facebook servers. Whoever had that video removed off YouTube won’t have known that the video is still generating a buzz out there on personal Facebook pages by those who downloaded it earlier off YouTube and uploaded it on their Facebook profiles. Upon that discovery, I used a popular video downloader (Internet Download Manager) to download that video clip to my PC and within minutes I had it uploaded back on YouTube. Mission accomplished.

Behind the scenes, some news agencies and reporters rush to save videos of controversial nature, well aware that they could be for a variety of reasons taken off YouTube. Recently, the CEO of a company that trains civilians in weapon and tactical skills claimed in a video that he rejects the tighter gun controls proposed by Obama and if enforced, he furiously vowed to “start killing people.” His video did not last long on YouTube, but if you read the story on the Huffington Post, you’d know that “[t]he original video was preserved by Raw Story,” (an online news publication).

In a nutshell, online content is endlessly replicated, archived, cached, downloaded, distributed, syndicated, retweeted, reposted, reblogged, forwarded, backed up, screen captured and printed. Regardless of the file type of the uploaded content, it will keep floating around in cyberspace and potentially resurface any time. The above-mentioned film can not be simply removed off the Web by the creator. Nor could it be censored by the White House or even Google. That’s the nature of the beast (read: the Internet).

It’s hardly surprising that the White House would make such a censorship request, which Google rejected. It might take a long time for those in power to fully comprehend that they lost their control over the flow of information.

Governments can no longer censor speech, so the only alternative left is a civilized dialogue. As disgusting as this film is, it still falls under free speech, a basic right shielded by anonymity on the Internet. As American historian Alfred Whitney Griswold said, “In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.”

This article was initially published in Doublethink magazine