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Google Employees Convicted in Italy

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Italian Judge Oscar Magi has convicted three Google employees for privacy violation after an offensive video was posted to Google Video back in 2006. The employees did get away with six-month suspended sentences but the wider implications of the conviction are bound to create a tidal wave of consternation.

The convicted employees had absolutely nothing to do with the video. It was posted by a user who has since been convicted for the offence - thanks to assistance from Google. The Google employees didn't participate in the video, they didn't upload or even review it. They only became aware of its existence after it had been removed.

Apparently the Italian judiciary are intent on wiping out the disturbing trend of posting offensive videos online (they are currently pursuing similar cases against eBay, Yahoo and Facebook). Their strategy is obviously to target web hosts as well as the offending uploaders.

It's clear that services like YouTube and Facebook are completely untenable if the host can be held liable for user uploads. YouTube gets 20 hours of video uploaded per minute - there's simply no economic way to preview it. There are many other problems; for example, hosts would need to access private accounts to vet some material - resulting in the ironic act of breaking one privacy law in order to avoid breaking a different one.

It is unclear exactly whether Judge Oscar Magi understands this. If he does, his message to Google is clear: "Get out of our country". If the conviction stands I feel that Google will have no choice but to do exactly that.

In principle I applaud efforts to make the web safer. Here in New Zealand the judiciary is far too soft on Internet offenders. I'd like to see jail sentences for many web crimes that are currently attracting little more than wrist-slaps. I even support efforts to make hosts be as proactive as possible to keep the nasties at bay.

However, prosecuting hosts for users' actions is, as privacy consultant Richard Thomas put it, "like prosecuting the post office for hate mail that is sent in the post". It makes no sense and it shows a poor understanding of how the web works.

What we need is to put far more liability onto the end user. Shifting responsibility to hosts will only make a bad situation worse. Many (especially young) people think they don't need to be accountable online. We need to show them that they, and they alone, will reap the consequences of their unsavory online activities.

In an official blog post, Google says:
"If... 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."
I think they are actually understating the situation. Instead of saying "could disappear" I'd say "will definitely disappear".

I run several online forums. Imagine I'm a bad guy and I want to hurt my competitors. All I need to do is pay some flunky in Nigeria to upload porn to their forum. They get convicted and I magically overtake them in search engine rankings. That's just one of a hundred reasons that user-generated content will cease in any country that enforces laws in the way Italy has done.

So my question to the people of Italy is this: Do you want to keep services like YouTube, Facebook, Blogger, Flickr, Twitter, etc etc? The judiciary apparently says no.

It's your move.

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