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YouTube shuts off Egyptian blogger's torture videos

Has the YouTube Effect stuck again? Wael Abbas, a well-known online activist in Egypt, says his YouTube video account has been suspended and his Yahoo! e-mail accounts have been shut down. Abbas had this pesky habit, you see, of posting graphic videos showing police brutality, and his site had become one of the most popular blogs in Egypt.

In one prominent incident, Abbas posted a video on his blog of a police officer binding and sodomizing an Egyptian bus driver who intervened in a dispute between police and another driver.

The video was one of the factors that led to the conviction of two police officers, who were sentenced to three years each in connection with the incident.

YouTube wouldn't comment on Abbas's specific case, but a company spokesman told CNN that in general, such graphic videos are a no-no:

YouTube prohibits inappropriate content on the site, and our community effectively polices the site for inappropriate material," the spokesperson said. "Users can flag content that they feel is inappropriate and once it is flagged it is reviewed by our staff and removed from the system within minutes if it violates our Community Guidelines or Terms of Use. We also disable the accounts of repeat offenders."

There are plenty of other video-sharing sites and third-party tools out there for posting viral videos, but Abbas says he's lost his entire archive, the fruit of years of painstaking work. Also this month, Yahoo! accused Abbas of spamming and shut down two e-mail accounts of his.

It's too early to tell if the Egyptian government had a hand in this, in which case we may have another case of U.S. tech companies kowtowing to authoritarian regimes. YouTube has a shadowy history of eliminating objectionable content to preserve market access, and the company isn't fully transparent about how it makes such decisions. So, this is going to remain murky. But I think the lesson to online activists is nonetheless clear: Don't use YouTube, and save your work offline.

UPDATE, Nov. 30, 2007: According to CNN, Abbas's YouTube account has been reactivated. YouTube said in a statement that he is free to upload his videos as long as he does so with enough context to show that he is trying to get an important message across. 

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If you outsource your life to India, don't be all imperial about it

Millions of Westerners fear their jobs may be offshored as the Internet and cheap telephony make it easier for countries with abundant supplies of labor, such as India and China, to compete with Western service firms. The world is flattening, you might say, and it makes many people nervous.

So, should we be afraid that our jobs are all going to be sent to India? On the contrary, I see yet another opportunity for trade to give us what we want, whether it's extra leisure time or getting things done more efficiently. Thousands of ordinary Americans, for instance, are embracing the use of affordable "virtual personal assistants" (VPAs) in India via sites like GetFriday.com for such tasks as booking dinner reservations, helping the kids with their homework, or even playing "World of Warcraft."

And they love it. Take Michael Levy, a U.S. lawyer who employs a VPA in India. He relishes his new-found freedom: "You become lazy... It's just wonderful." And Web sites such as IwantaPA.com offer "empowerment" not only for independent professionals, but also for small to medium enterprises and large enterprises, 24/7, and without the burden of office space or paying out benefits. All for a third the price of regular PAs.

That said, having a VPA is not all gumdrops and lollipops. Two years ago, A. J. Jacobs of Esquire wrote a humorous account of his experience outsourcing his life to a number of VPAs in India, including a woman named Honey. Jacobs writes:

I THINK I'M in love with Honey. How can I not be? She makes my mother look unsupportive. Every day I get showered with compliments, many involving capital letters: "awesome Editor" and "Family Man." When I confess I'm a bit tired, she tells me, "You need rest. . . . Do not to overexert yourself." It's constant positive feedback, like phone sex without the moaning.

Sometimes the relentless admiration makes me feel a little awkward, perhaps like a viceroy in the British East India company. Another cucumber sandwich, Honey! And a Pimm's cup while you're at it! But then she calls me "brilliant" and I forget my guilt.

Sounds great, right? But Jacobs's story raises some interesting questions: Is employing a VPA in India to respond to your every whim a neo-imperial, exploitative phenomenon? (Jacobs did experience other pangs of guilt as he found himself making stranger demands simply because he could.) Or is it a genuine win-win transaction, where clients in the West make the most of their purchasing power while entrepreneurs in the East expand their markets?