Legal action in Italy raises the question of whether Web 2.0 sites should be held legally liable for content posted to them by users. Italian authorities are investigating Google executives in connection with a segment on Google Video showing students at a Turin school bullying an autistic student. The executives are being scrutinized for violating Italian law on appropriate content. "In the US, sites like Google Video, SoapBox, and YouTube are generally protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which grants 'safe harbor' to the sites so long as they are not the 'publishers' of any illegal material and take it down immediately when requested," Ars Technica notes.
Ars Technica questions the wisdom of censoring offensive clips online. Appearance of the Italian clip on Google video "has helped to spark a national debate over the issue of bullying in the schools there. Perhaps Google should be thanked? ... Sometimes people need to be shocked out of complacency or offended by witnessing something despicable; such video clips can be powerful catalysts for social change."
This discussion boils down to several separate issues:
Web 2.0 sites should not be required to screen content by users before making that content available to the public. That would effectively stifle public debate on the Web. Sites like YouTube and MySpace could not have grown to the size they are if somebody had to watch every word and every video frame to be sure it was appropriate before it got out in the wild.
Moreover, we have experience with this kind of censorship in moderated discussion groups, which have existed for decades. Moderation turns a discussion group into a series of monologues; it's hard to have an actual back-and-forth discussion given the delays and bottlenecks that moderation imposes.
Should Web 2.0 site owners take down inappropriate content when it comes to their attention? Phrased that way, the answer to the question is, "Heck, yeah!" But who defines "inappropriate"? If I were running Google Video in Italy, I'd have taken down that video in a red-hot minute and done my best to contact the Turin school authorities and police. And yet, I could not condemn someone who felt it was their responsibility to keep the video available to the public, and let people see what was going on. Nobody's going to get rid of ugliness and hatred if people don't know that the ugliness and hatred are around.
Web 2.0 sites should have the same free speech protections available to other media. This seems like plain common sense, but it's occasionally contested online, most notably in lawsuits which attempt to prove that bloggers are not journalists.
What do you think? How much freedom of expression is too much?