February 24, 2010
In September 2006, four students at a school in Turin, Italy, beat and humiliated an autistic classmate. A fifth student captured the incident on her cellphone camera, then posted the digital footage to Google Video. It spent two months as one of the site’s most popular clips before Google took it down at the request of Italian police.
The attackers were convicted and ordered to perform 10 months of community service; the girl who recorded the beating was convicted too, and given a similar penalty. But that wasn’t enough for Italian authorities. On Wednesday, a court in Milan convicted three Google executives of violating the victim’s privacy and sentenced them to six months in jail. Judge Oscar Magi suspended the sentence and imposed no financial penalty, so the conviction has little practical effect on the three executives. The implications for the Internet, however, are enormous and chilling.
One reason the Internet is so transformative is that companies such as Google have built platforms that anyone can use to distribute works and products. They radically lower the barriers to entry into the markets for information and entertainment, promoting both speech and commerce. That’s in sharp contrast to traditional media companies, which typically exist to publish or broadcast just the works in the portfolios they control. But because some of the new online platforms don’t screen material before it’s exposed to the public, bad things inevitably happen.
The choice, though, is between a system that pushes online companies to respond quickly and fairly to complaints about videos after they’re posted, and one that compels them to become gatekeepers. Lawmakers in the U.S. and the European Union have opted, correctly, for the former approach. But there has been growing pressure from a variety of aggrieved parties — companies and individuals claiming to have been defamed or bullied, entertainment conglomerates and luxury brands fighting piracy — to force the Googles of the world to police their sites and block disputed material before it draws a complaint, or even before it’s posted. Magi’s ruling, unfortunately, is a victory for that side. It could prevent start-ups with open platforms from competing with the likes of Google (and Facebook and EBay) while forcing the incumbents to reduce the flow of material onto their sites.
By convicting Google executives for violating privacy with a video they did not make or post online, Magi undermined the message that prosecutors sent to the youths who did. The right lesson should have been that the Internet gives people great power, and those who misuse it will bear the responsibility — all of it.