Italian Court Strikes Blow to Freedom on the Web

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In a decision that has been widely considered a serious blow to freedom on the Internet, an Italian court convicted three Google executives (ab absentiam) to violations of Italian privacy laws after the American-based company did not act fast enough in taking down a video in 2006  that showed a group of Italian students bullying a schoolmate with Down’s syndrome. The students uploaded the video to Google Video. After being on online for 2 days, Google received complaints about it and took it down immediately upon receiving complaints. Google also cooperated with Italian authorities to help identify the bullies and bring them to justice.

However, that was not enough for the Italian appellate court, which ruled that the Google executives were liable for the content on its website, even though they personally had no knowledge of the video nor of its contents. Google argued that hosting platforms that do not create their own content, Google Video, YouTube and Facebook cannot be held responsible for content that others upload, while prosecutors alleged (and the court agreed) that Google was negligent by allowing the video to remain online for two months even though some web users had already posted comments asking for it to be taken down.

Italian courts are willing to restrict freedom of speech to a much greater degree than American courts are for the sake of community or common good, or in this case, the privacy of an individual. I remember a case a few years ago that went to the European Court of Human Rights. It involved criminal defamation charges for a journalist who wrote a very satirical article about a well-known Italian judge. Even though it was clearly tongue in cheek (think Jon Stewart), the court found that it was defamatory. Very different from our protections, where even a cartoon about Jerry Falwell having sex for the first time with his mother in his outhouse was protected by the First Amendment. The protection of the judiciary and the public’s respect for judges was sufficient to restrict freedom of speech. Our individual rights win out more often over community good.

Privacy laws are also a lot stricter in Europe than they are here in the United States. In this case, I think that it is wrong to hold 3 executives liable for a video that they did not create and could not have known about, given the thousands of videos that are uploaded to Google Video or similar sites each day. If the company did react upon learning of the video and its content through complaints, then they acted reasonably and as a company should. To hold otherwise will put executives at risk for content they cannot monitor and restrict freedom on the Internet.

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