Italy today attacked the very basis of the read/write Web we focus on here at ReadWriteWeb when it convicted three of four Google employees on trial for failing to comply with the Italian privacy code. In essence, Italy just said that website owners are legally responsible for all content posted to their site, whether or not they have any part of it and comply with local laws once notified.
This sort of ruling attacks the foundation of the Internet as we use it today.If corporations and website owners are to be held responsible in this way for user-created content, the Web as we know it will die a fast and painful death.
Google explained the details of the situation early this morning in a blog:
In late 2006, students at a school in Turin, Italy filmed and then uploaded a video to Google Video that showed them bullying an autistic schoolmate. The video was totally reprehensible and we took it down within hours of being notified by the Italian police ... a public prosecutor in Milan decided to indict four Google employees --David Drummond, Arvind Desikan, Peter Fleischer and George Reyes (who left the company in 2008). The charges brought against them were criminal defamation and a failure to comply with the Italian privacy code. To be clear, none of the four Googlers charged had anything to do with this video. They did not appear in it, film it, upload it or review it. None of them know the people involved or were even aware of the video's existence until after it was removed.
Reuters reports that the three executives were sentenced to six months in jail. The ruling sets a very dangerous precedence. As we wrote earlier this month, "Nicola D'Angelo, a commissioner in Italy's Communications Authority, say these new rules would make Italy 'the only Western country in which it is necessary to have prior government permission to operate this kind of service.'"
The simple fact is that users should be solely responsible for the content they create, as long as the publishing entity takes reasonable steps to ensure that laws are followed within a timely manner. Had Google allowed to sit on the website in defiance of the laws, then we would be having a different discussion.
As Google argues in its blog post, "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."
Google says it will "vigorously appeal this decision", a move we strongly back. But we have to wonder why it won't take this same sort of stance in China, where it has threatened, but still has yet to remove censorship on its search results.
Just as the argument here is that people need to be allowed to create, and websites allowed to host, content, people need to be able to access that content. Freedom consists not only of the ability to express opinions, however disparate, but to access those opinions.
So, in reference to standing up to Italy, we say an enthusiastic "here, here!" and only hope to see the same, instead of idle threats, in the company's dealings with China.