Google convicted in Italy, mounts high horse

Matt Bowman · February 24, 2010 · Short URL:

Search giant’s appeal to freedom on the Internet makes its China policies look more contradictory

 By now, you’ve probably read about the three Google Execs convicted by an Italian court  for the transmission of a video showing the bullying of a youth with Down Syndrome. While the judge has yet to publish his opinion, it’s clear that the ruling, if it holds up, would make all Internet companies that host user-generated content criminally responsible for every piece of content posted to their properties from the moment of publication, which would effectively kill off sites like YouTube, Blogger and Facebook in Italy.

The blogosphere--particularly the American blogosphere--is up in arms, since the ruling flies in the face of what has become common sense to most netizens: while a service provider like Google should be held responsible for taking down illegal and inappropriate material upon being notified (which Google did in this case) only the person who posts content can be held responsible for protecting the privacy and obtaining the consent of the people they are filming.

I won’t beleaguer that argument. An equally interesting angle on the story is countries’ rights. It’s conceivable that Italian law, which ultimately constitutes--in some form--an expression of the will of the Italian people, would opt for holding Google and other hosting platforms responsible for everything published on their properties. I’m not a legal expert and certainly haven’t studied Italian Law, so I’m not saying this is actuall the case, but assume for the moment the judge is right about the positive legal dimension for a moment. If the judge’s finding is held up overtime, to what extent should Italy be pressured to change its ways?

In its blog post lambasting the decision, Google, aside from arguing it violates Italian law, says the conviction is dangerous because “It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built,” and because “the Web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear” if the Italian ruling holds.

The premises may be true, but the Internet was built in America, and other countries are not bound to honor, on their own turf, the foundational principles of a product developed here. In fact, the Internet, as well as Google’s services, have often been modified by countries upon adoption—just look at Google’s decision to allow Chinese governmental censorship of its search results (Google has threatened to discontinue the practice, but has made no policy decisions to that effect.) Countries with more paternalistic forms of government will certainly be leery of the free-for-all that is the Internet.

Google, Facebook, blogs with comments—all of them could leave Italy, and a few services complying with the Italian laws would crop up. Italy would be likely suffer economically, but at least its computer screens would be “safer” according to the intent of its laws. Italy’s free to do that.

Google should argue its case based on Italian Law. If it mounts the high horse and argues too much about the supremacy of the Internet’s foundational principle of freedom over certain countries’ paternalism, its cowtowing to Chinese censors looks ever more contradictory.

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