A judge in Italy recently convicted three Google executives for failure to comply with Italian privacy laws. The privacy violation was actually committed by a school student who shot video of a classmate being bullied and then uploaded the footage to Google Video. Google calls the convictions "a serious threat to the Web" and contends that new precedent set by Italian courts endangers the very fabric of the Web.This story is one that's difficult to stomach or understand. Near the end of 2006, some school kids shot video of them bullying an autistic classmate. They then uploaded the video to Google Video. Google pulled the footage within hours of its posting and helped the Italian police identify the person who uploaded the video. That person and several others were sentenced to 10 months of community service for the act.
Inexplicably, a judge in Milan decided to also hold Google executives responsible for the video. Four men -- David Drummond, Arvind Desikan, Peter Fleischer and George Reyes -- were indicted for criminal defamation and failure to follow Italian privacy laws. The kicker is, none of the men had anything to do with the video whatsoever. In fact, the men knew nothing about it until after the video was removed from the Google Video site. That didn't stop the judge from convicting the men of their "crimes."
Google is not happy about the situation. In a blog post written by Matt Sucherman, VP and Deputy General Counsel - Europe, Middle East and Africa, Google explains its position:
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... It is outrageous that they have been subjected to a trial at all.I couldn't agree with Google's position more. As a content creator who constantly uploads videos to YouTube and pictures to Picasa, Facebook and other sharing sites, I need my content to be processed and posted expediently. Any sort of vetting process whereby a human being has to scan content for privacy violations and rubber stamp it before posting would seriously hinder the entire process. But that's not the real issue here.
But we are deeply troubled by this conviction for another equally important reason. 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. European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and support free speech while protecting personal privacy. If that principle is swept aside and 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.
I believe I am fully responsible for the content I post. YouTube, Picasa, et al., certainly shouldn't be held liable. They are simple platforms and tools used by content creators. Convicting these men of privacy crimes is akin to convicting a hammer of murder. It simple makes no sense.
Google has said that it will appeal this decision. Personally, I hope someone talks some sense to the judge in question. If not, I am sure Google will take the matter to the European Union before we hear the end of it.