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Three Google executives were convicted in an Italian court last Wednesday, thanks to a third-party online video that showed the bullying of an autistic teenager.
Let’s clarify something: These men didn’t upload the vid. They, in fact, had nothing to do with the content or creation of it. But a judge in Milan held them, as officers of the company, criminally responsible for it anyway. Each of the three defendents — Peter Fleischer, the corporation’s global privacy counsel, Senior VP and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond, and retired CFO George Reyes — were given a six-month suspended sentence.
“The judge has decided I’m primarily responsible for the actions of some teenagers who uploaded a reprehensible video to Google video,” says Fleischer. “If company employees like me can be held criminally liable for any video on a hosting platform when they had absolutely nothing to do with the video in question, then our liability is unlimited.”
Google’s stance is that it was unaware of the offensive vid, but when the company was informed, it yanked the clip within two hours. But even so, it says, the conviction was more than just a shock — it was a dangerous move that “attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built." Online service providers in the States are protected by the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which offers immunity from this kind of liability. But American laws hold no sway in Europe, and Italy’s courts saw fit to seek charges.
This news does raise some concerns. If internet service providers become accountable for content uploaded by third parties, then it’s not unreasonable to think that some (if not all) of these providers might begin reviewing, even filtering, internet content. But what would that do to the notion of an open and free internet? That is exactly what some experts are worried about.
"We are concerned that non-democratic countries will point to it as a precedent for holding companies responsible for hosting content. This could have a chilling effect on free speech," said Ari Schwartz, chief operating officer of the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington D.C.
So it’s not just a matter of upholding freedom of creative expression. The question is whether this case could give fuel to authoritarian regimes, who already play loose with people’s access to information. This, they say, could mark the beginning of a slippery slope.
But there are others who are conversely thrilled with the conviction, considering it an act of protection for a person over a business. The 2006 video at the heart of the case was a disturbing look at a true act of bullying. It was hosted on Google Video (pre-YouTube acquisition, which occurred later that year), and showed an autistic teen in Turin being physically assaulted and verbally abused by classmates. The clip was live for two months, during which time it was viewed 5,500 times and reached the top of Google Italy’s “most entertaining” videos.
This situation is definitely not easy to judge. On the one hand, what happened to this victim was humiliating and reprehensible. If I placed myself in his shoes (or those of his loved ones), the last thing I’d ever want would be a lasting digital memory available for public viewing. But does it serve justice to take a sad, upsetting situation and make it worse by setting precedents that others will abuse?
What do you think? Was the Milan court right in convicting Google’s officers? Should they have taken greater measures to block this offensive vid? Or were they simply the latest victims in this sad, unfortunate scenario?
What I’d like to know is what happened to the assailants — you know, the ones who actually abused the autistic student and presumably recorded the video that set this chain of events in motion. My mind is in knots when I think of it: An act of cruelty, a few moments to upload, and suddenly, three strangers’ lives are marked, and the internet and all digital democracy has been threatened.
For the whole article, click the link below to go to the Associated Press story. (It's worth a full read.)
Via: The Associated Press