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Google privacy convictions: a dangerous precedent

GoogleA few years ago, I received a poison pen letter. Well, these things happen. But now, I'm going to see if I can get my postman jailed for delivering it.

Sounds ludicrous? It should. And it's the same principle driving an equally absurd ruling against Google in Italy this week.

Three Google employees are facing suspended jail sentences following a conviction by a Italian court. Their crime? Allowing an offensive video to be uploaded to the Google Video service. By a third-party user. Whom they didn't know or have anything to do with.

Needless to say, the repercussions of this ruling could be enormous - and they could affect us all.

Google and the Italian video case

The Google case dates back to 2006, when a group of Italian students uploaded a video of themselves bullying a mentally challenged schoolmate to the Google Video site. Italy's Interior Ministry discovered the clip and filed a formal complaint to Google. The clip was then removed.

So what's the problem? Prosecutors argued the Google execs violated Italian privacy laws simply by allowing the video to appear on the Google Video site, despite the fact that they never reviewed it or even knew it existed prior to its removal. The three employees were accused of criminal defamation and privacy invasion. They were found guilty of the latter.

Some say the question comes down to timing: the clip, reports indicate, was online for about two months. According to Reuters, prosecutors claimed there were user-submitted comments on the page asking for the video's removal.

Once Italian officials filed a formal complaint, however, the clip was deleted within hours.

Google conviction questions

Here's the truth. There's no way Google could monitor every submission uploaded to its sites to see if anything offensive lurks within. And there's no way it could watch all the comments on every page to see if people are using the forums to complain about questionable content, either.

If Google is held responsible for this incident, where will the implications end? Will Facebook be responsible for every hate-filled remark left on someone's profile wall? Will wireless carriers be responsible for every filthy 'sexting' message sent by an underage teenager on their networks? Can I have my editor jailed if someone bashes me in the comments section of this website? (Not that that ever happens, of course.)

The very nature of an open and social internet depends upon a provider's ability to host content without fear of being prosecuted for a user's submission. As Matt Sucherman, Google's VP and deputy general counsel for Europe, puts it:

"European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and support free speech while protecting personal privacy.

"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."

Sure, Google may have made some missteps on privacy-related issues in the past - more times than can be counted, according to some critics - but in this case, I reckon the company is in the right. And I'm not alone. Several privacy advocates are already stepping up to speak out in Google's defence - a position quite contrary to their typical stances in Google privacy stories.

Google is now appealing against the Italian court's verdict. For the sake of the free web, let's hope someone reasonable hears the case.

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