THE CONVICTION in Italy of a trio of Google executives is a blow against common sense and Internet freedom.
The ruling, which saw three Google bosses charged with trampling individual privacy, came about after a video of a bullying incident was posted on the firm's Italian Google Video website. Although that is a terrible thing to have happened, many people think that the court's ruling goes against common sense and is an example of the erosion of online freedom. Google is appealing the decision, which we think was wrong and incredibly stupid and could set a very bad precedent for all firms that provide access to user generated content.
Jon Fell of the legal firm Pinsent Masons said that the case should never have happened under European laws, specifically the EU E-Commerce Directive, which "protects service providers from liability for material that they neither create nor monitor but simply store or pass on to users of their service". Fell added, "The Italian ruling could threaten the operation of that exemption." Remarkably however, it did go to court, and the Italian judge forgot all about this part of European law.
Earlier this month Chad Hurley, co-founder and chief executive at Youtube, wrote, "When we registered the Youtube domain on February 14, 2005, we set out to create a place where anyone with a video camera and an Internet connection could share a story with the world. Five years into it, we're as committed as ever to the core beliefs and principles that guided YouTube's creation."
But few people would want to watch a video of a boy with Down's Syndrome being humiliated, and we suspect that being an enabler for this sort of abuse was far from Hurley's mind half a decade ago.
Indeed, this week Google said, "The video was totally reprehensible and we took it down within hours of being notified by the Italian police. We also worked with the local police to help identify the person responsible for uploading it and she was subsequently sentenced to 10 months community service by a court in Turin, as were several other classmates who were also involved. In these rare but unpleasant cases, that's where our involvement would normally end." However, end it did not.
Four Google execs were indicted by a pubic prosecutor in Milan for "criminal defamation and a failure to comply with the Italian privacy code". Ultimately three were convicted on the privacy infringement counts, while they were all found not guilty on the defamation charges.
"In essence this ruling means that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload. We will appeal this astonishing decision because the Google employees on trial had nothing to do with the video in question. Throughout this long process, they have displayed admirable grace and fortitude. It is outrageous that they have been subjected to a trial at all," said Matt Sucherman, vice president and deputy general counsel for Google in Europe etc.
He added that the firm is "deeply troubled by this conviction for another equally important reason," explaining, "It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built. Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming "
"If sites like Blogger, Youtube and indeed every social network and any community bulletin board, are held responsible for vetting every single piece of content that is uploaded to them - every piece of text, every photo, every file, every video - then the web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear."
It is hard to think of a workable solution to the problem, other than the convention that currently exists, but that the Milanese judge decided to ignore. Users moderate online content, to a greater or lesser degree, and flag for removal any item that is inappropriate to viewers. If Google had to vet each video that went online, or each blogger post, or every photo uploaded to a Picasa folder, it would have to employ thousands of monkeys on thousands of computers just to give each new post the non-opposable thumbs up or thumbs down.
According to Youtube's own factsheet there are millions of videos on the site. "People are watching hundreds of millions of videos a day on Youtube and uploading hundreds of thousands of videos daily. In fact, every minute, 20 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube", it says.
Scanning all of this media would create an industry in its own right, and the web, which has revolutionised everything from friendships to news reporting, would lose all its realtime relevancy, and worst still, firms like Google would be accused of censorship, or for taking on a Big Brother type role, where it is not wanted.
Not everything that Google does is right, but here we think it is doing all it can. We'll follow its appeal with interest. µ