Francis Vierboom's Blog

A blog about things. Mostly news, ideas, and Sydney

Italy v Google

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The Australian reports that Italian prosecutors are pressing for a one year jail term (although the headline says six months) for four Google executives. The case is based on a video of bullying that was posted to YouTube in 2006 for two months and taken down after Google was notified.

I can recall when this initially hit the headlines months ago – Peter Fleischer, Google’s privacy counsel, was arrested out of the blue while visiting Italy. At the time I assumed it was simply a local prosecutor looking to make a name for him/herself. But no, it looks like the Italians actually want to convict some of the Google boardroom of serious crimes because some Italian kids posted an abusive video on the website.

I will admit I have a crush on Google for various reasons, but surely pursuing this case is absurd. I am all for holding corporations to a high level of duty in protecting consumers and not profiting from violations of the law, but there is a point at which responsibility really does not fall on a corporation anymore. And this case seems to fall well past that point. Shouldn’t the executives from the company that manufactured the video camera be sued as well? It just seems so obvious that it’s not worth saying. As Google themselves say, it’s like charging the postman for delivering a letter containing hate speech.

The laws around defamation and privacy are still catching up with the fact that publishing something to a huge community is no longer a difficult thing to do. The law as it stands now reflects a time when widely published content (newspapers, radio, television) was necessarily highly editorially controlled (and highly profitable). Today, millions of individuals make public statements that are instantly available around the globe every single day. Assuming that there are reasonable ‘notify-and-takedown’ procedures, as there seems to be here, it simply doesn’t make sense to hold carriers like Google criminally responsible.

The New York Times notes the rather important fact that, if convicted, the defendants “would not serve jail time because sentences of less than three years are commuted in Italy for those who do not have a criminal record.”

Nevertheless, I don’t think Google would be happy with criminal convictions of any kind, and the obvious riposte (as well as the sensible one) to suspended jail terms for Google execs would be to simply shut down access to YouTube from Italy. A few countries have managed to pull this off – notably China, Iran and Tunisia (see Wikipedia for more). But Italy? I doubt it.

If it really does come to fisticuffs the situation for users could end up like Turkey, where the (still-current) YouTube ban is actually an interesting piece of political intrigue. Turkey has a formal ban in place based on a judicial order because of the availability of a video that insults Attaturk. However, it remains easily accessible via proxy servers, and it’s apparently still the 9th most visited website in the country. Prime Minister Erdogan himself is quite open about how easy it is to access.

The governing Islamic AK party is often at odds with the secular judiciary and military – the supreme court recently considered banning the party –  and apparently the government is quite happy for the ban to remain in an effort to make the judiciary look outdated. More on this fascinating story here.

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Written by Francis

November 26, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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