Even President Obama can't control content on the Internet


Last week, President Obama gave a speech at the United Nations in which he addressed, among other things, the idea that content flows in ways that no nation can control. He's learning what IT has discovered for some time.

The president was referring to a YouTube video that many Muslims found to be offensive. In response, some Muslim leaders demanded the video be taken down. Whatever you think of the video--and its content is really irrelevant to this piece--once a piece of content goes out into the world it's going to find its way no matter what. As much as one individual or group may want to stop that content, it's just not possible once it's on the Internet.

There were many calls for YouTube to take down the video--including one from the White House--but even if Google (NASDAQ: GOOG)--owners of YouTube--had complied, it wouldn't have mattered because once a piece content is let loose in the world, it's very difficult to control it, even when extremely powerful forces want it gone.

Speaking of that video in his speech to the United Nations, President Obama said, "I know that not all countries in this body share this understanding of the protection of free speech. Yet in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete."

And that's a true statement, regardless of whether you're a corporation, a government or any other entity. There is tremendous power in this ability to distribute information, but once it's out there, it tends to be out there, and it's not just one platform or server. Even if you want to call it back, it's next to impossible to do it.

A friend of mine learned this the hard way several years ago when she wrote an unflattering blog post about a famous person. She wasn't prepared for the level of enmity she was about to unleash. Rabid fans got wind of her post and she got an onslaught of rude comments. Shocked by the level of discourse, she decided to simply take down the post, but she found it was too late for that because it existed in caches and people had copied and pasted it to share--it was out there in any number of ways beyond just her blogging platform. It was well beyond simply pulling back, and this was just a blog post.

Content has power and presence and it spreads in ways we can't always anticipate, as my friend found out. Enterprises and governments alike that have failed to recognized the power of social media to distribute a message have been surprised by a tidal wave of message distribution--whether it's a positive one or a negative one.

As David Meerman Scott pointed out in a blog post last week, the web shifted the balance of power in terms of the ability to publish and react to news. Instead of standing at the gates of the publishing house and begging for access on bended knee, anyone can publish--and as presidents and CEOs have seen with that power comes unforeseen consequences.

We've also seen that there are those who want to cause trouble can easily do it, whether they are angry customers, competitors trying to undermine you, or some fool with a video camera. The message is no longer in the control of the Powers that Be. It's now in the control of anyone with a laptop or a cell phone and with a few clicks, all hell can break loose.

President Obama recognizes this power all too well. Do you? - Ron