YouTube’s “butterfly effect”

I am sure you have heard of the “butterfly effect”. This is the theory that states that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in Africa could cause a tsunami in China (my geography may be off, but you get the point).

We have witnessed another butterfly effect this past weekend on the Internet, which has been just one more reminder that the Internet is global, and one person can truly affect the worldwide audience. It seems that a YouTube video from a Dutch film maker was thought to be so controversial in Pakistan that it might cause riots, so the Pakistan government decided to block access to YouTube in their country until the video was removed. Unfortunately, they did not configure their routers to appropriately handle this block message, and instead all Internet traffic intended for YouTube globally was re-routed to Pakistan, and promptly dropped. This caused a worlwide YouTube outage for several hours on Sunday.

Now, I am not of the opinion that an outage of YouTube is disastrous. Personally, I am not a big fan. I am also not in any way advocating censorship on the Internet. However, this incident certainly gives one pause, on multiple fronts.

Most importantly, it highlights the very real danger of one “loose cannon” individual posting something that could indeed cause riots elsewhere in the world. While I do not support what the Pakistani government was doing, I do believe that their concern was probably well-founded – one video or blog post could indeed cause riots. I hearken back to some e-mails that I have sent, which I later wished I hadn’t…I thought it was funny, others didn’t see the humor. Luckily, the message only went to a few thousand employees. It didn’t cause a riot, but it also certainly didn’t help build relationships in a newly-merged company that was trying to gel its employees into one happy family.

The other problem that this brings to light is the fragile Internet infrastructure upon which we are becoming more dependent. One person’s mis-configuration can affect a much larger audience – and while the particular router problem that occurred in Pakistan this weekend was very rare, it proves that technology is not infallible.

The Internet community is growing, due to the popularity of blogs, social networking sites and other user-generated content websites. This brings with it an implied responsibility to be mindful of possible worldwide reaction – we need to be aware of the Internet Butterfly Effect.

Or, I suppose we could just keep the idiots off of the web…but if we did that, I would have to close down my blog.

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