November 10, 2008

What are you in for, kid? - "I worked for Google ... "

Greetings. Lost in the post-election buzz is a story of potentially major concern regarding free speech and the Internet, and the controversial issues of who is responsible for materials posted to the Net.

In Italy, prosecutors are bringing charges against four former and current Google employees, charging them with defamation and failure to appropriately control personal data.

The defendants in this case didn't post anything themselves. At issue is the posting of a video in 2006 to YouTube that showed students humiliating a youth with Down syndrome. Italian authorities are asserting that the posting of this video is contrary to Italian law, even though the video was removed from YouTube by Google within hours of Google being notified of its existence.

The ramifications of this case could be major indeed. YouTube reportedly receives hundreds of thousands of new videos daily (according to Google, at least 10 hours of video per minute are being uploaded).

Various countries around the world maintain an array of sometimes onerous and often conflicting rules about what constitutes "forbidden" video materials, and in some cases have at times pressured Google to remove various items and/or at least temporarily tried to block their populations from accessing YouTube at all.

Of course, these efforts don't ever really block the distribution of the videos in question, but the harassment value can be damaging in its own right.

But Italy, by bringing charges against Google executives relating to a video that was promptly removed from YouTube, are breaking very dangerous ground.

A successful prosecution in this case could lead to the draconian situation where no legitimate Internet site would be willing to allow videos to be posted without full pre-screening -- and even that assumes the expertise to determine what did or did not pass muster under any given set of national standards, which vary enormously and are continually changing.

This would create an utterly untenable situation that could bring the entire concept of "Web 2.0" user-contributed content to a grinding halt, at least out in the light. Underground -- well, we can safely assume that the content so distasteful to those governments would continue to flow under the radar. That's the technical reality of the Internet. But vast amounts of completely innocent materials would be stifled from legal distribution under the impractical demands for full proactive screening.

Given the reasoning behind Italy's prosecution -- especially if the prosecution is successful, why shouldn't we expect ever more countries to try take the same "shoot the messenger" approach? And why should we expect them to stop at videos involving children being harassed? How about "undesirable" political content? And audio materials? Why not try to restrict the posting of ordinary text and html pages the same way?

If anything you don't like shows up, toss the owners of the Web service in question into a dank cell and pull out the trusty Taser to show that you really mean business!

Seriously, with this prosecution, Italy is playing with fire, and the associated mindset could ultimately threaten to undermine the continuing growth, or even the continued operation, of vast aspects of the Internet that untold millions of persons around the world use and now depend upon every day.

If cooler heads don't prevail in Italy -- and even if they do -- we could have a very big problem on our hands just a short ways down the line.


Posted by Lauren at November 10, 2008 06:11 PM | Permalink
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