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Does Italy’s Google Conviction Portend More Web Censorship?; Google Calls it “Astonishing”

from – Online rights activists are divided Wednesday over an Italian court’s guilty verdicts against Google executives who were convicted on privacy charges for not blocking a video that made fun of a child with Down syndrome. All agree the controversial ruling runs counter to longstanding U.S. and E.U. “safe harbor” laws immunizing online service providers for what users do — but the activists are mixed over what the decision means and how much importance should be place on it.

Leslie Harris [pictured], the president of the influential Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology, argued the ruling would be used by authoritarian regimes to justify their own web censorship.

“Today’s stunning verdict sets an extremely dangerous precedent that threatens free expression and chills innovation on the global internet,” Harris said in an e-mail statement. “If the conviction is allowed to stand, it will chill the provision of Web 2.0 services that provide user-generated content platforms in Italy, and Italian internet users will find themselves without a powerful forum for free expression.

“Most troubling, what happened in Italy is unlikely to stay in Italy. The Italian court’s actions today will surely embolden authoritarian regimes and be used to justify their own efforts to suppress internet freedom.”

Chief among the concerns is that nations might turn to using criminal laws or threats of criminal prosecutions to force companies to bend to the their political will.

Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Lee Tien of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation shares Harris’ concern for online rights.

“The threat to internet free speech from nations around the world that don’t have the same laws and attitudes about free speech is absolutely a constant problem and is getting worse,” Tien said.

But he warned against placing too much emphasis on this case, which many see as thinly veiled machinations against Google by Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has nearly monopoly control over Italy’s mainstream media. Italy’s parliament is currently considering a law that would put online video services under the same rules imposed on broadcast stations — legislation intended to stifle online speech.

But the Google case will drag on in appeals for years and it’s not clear it will be anything more than a legal anomaly.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of real and sticky issues around hate speech and pornography — where people have legitimate issues and real public policy has to be worked out, according to Tien.

“I’d prefer people to think about those cases and not focus on show cases,” he said.

Google, for one, called the decision “astonishing.”

“It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the internet is built,” Google lawyer Matt Sucherman wrote on Google’s blog. “If that ’safe harbor’ 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.”

And while it might be tempting for some to dismiss the suit as the work of a crazy Italian justice system, the United States is no stranger to politically motivated legal attacks on free speech and internet freedom.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles prosecuted and convicted a Missouri woman on hacking charges for helping put up a fake MySpace profile to harass a neighbor’s teenage daughter, who later committed suicide. The judge in the case overturned Lori Drew’s conviction. He found the government’s contention that violating a website’s terms of service was the same as hacking “unconstitutional.”

And in South Carolina, the Attorney General Henry McMaster threatened to criminally prosecute Craigslist management if the classified listings site didn’t remove its erotic listings category, saying the site was promoting prostitution. A federal judge had to order McMaster to stop his threats.

The Italy decision won’t be published in full for several weeks and will likely be on appeal for years. None of those convicted will likely ever serve their six months of jail time, in no small part since they all live outside of Italy. The video at issue appeared in 2006, on Google Video, a service now replaced by YouTube.

University of Virgina media studies and law professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, meanwhile, sees the Italian case as a very local issue rooted in Italian politics and a sign that Google’s culture of audacious enterprises isn’t as welcome outside the Unite States as it hoped it would be.

“The government in Italy wants to hold Google down in Italy until it says ‘uncle’ for a while,” Vaidhyanathan said. “But it does say a lot about the fact that the globalization of Google is not going well. The ruling comes as cyberliberties are in flux globally and Google is trying to maintain revenues in countries like Egypt and Russia.”

Vaidhyanathan, whose upcoming book The Googlization of Everything tackles the subject of Google as a worldwide cultural force, says that the net’s and Google’s method of doing things first and letting people opt out later is proving to be not a hit everywhere around the globe.

“Google is finding that getting beyond America is difficult,” sad Vaidhyanathan, referring to Google’s hacking showdown in China, privacy issues with its Street View mapping cameras in Germany, and the censorship demands placed on it by China, Turkey, Thailand, Argentina and India.

“I can see the general objection to Google’s way of doing things,” said Vaidhyanathan. “It’s default setting is that it can do whatever it wants and if you have a problem, just let them know, and that opt-out model is not applicable in every case.”

To others, like Tien, the ruling is simply baffling. Clearly, Italy doesn’t want its own service providers to have to meet the burden of approving every forum posting, blog comment or uploaded video — and punishing executives when their companies miss the mark — as was the case of the Google executives in Italy.

That’s akin to making automobile executives personally liable in any automobile accident related to the company’s sticky pedal woes.

Tien said that would be a “massive extension of liability.”


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