Profound Implications for Google in Italy: Google is Liable for Content Posted by Users

There has been a lot of bad press about Google recently, with the Chinese hackers (not necessarily connected with the Chinese government), anti-trust lawsuits in Europe, protests about the various implications of the Google Book deal with publishers & authors.  Now a legal case in Italy has weakened the once solid foundation of Google’s identity as an information distributor in Italy and potentially around the world.

If you are unfamiliar with the case, the trial centers on a video uploaded to YouTube which shows a teen with Autism (also Down’s Syndrome) being bullied by four boys at a school in Turin. The video was watched 5,500 times (according to within the two months it was originally posted to YouTube.  Google officials pulled the video from YouTube two hours after being notified by the Italian police (according to The boy’s father and an advocacy group for people with Down syndrome complained the video violated privacy protection laws, and the Italian court agreed.

So why is this is news so big for Google as well as potentially other search engines like BING?

Google has always assumed the role as a distributor of information. It indexes information that is available on the web and makes it searchable by using keywords and phrases and using complex algorithms to return the results.  Google says that it does not provide content–internet users do the content contributing.  Since Google does not provide content, it does not fall under the same regulatory category as the news media and should not be held liable for the content that its users post.

The Italian court disagrees, and said that Google does provide content, is responsible for the content its users post to its various services such as YouTube, and should therefore be subject to government regulation (in Italy).

On the Official Google Blog, it was announced that Google will appeal the decision.  Matt Sucherman, VP and Deputy General Council of Europe, Middle East and Africa stated that,

[The decision] attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built. Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming. 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, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear.

So if the European Union law is not honored in Italy, all host providers could be held liable for the content that its users post online from within Italy.  Companies will more than likely choose not to host non-commercial content, and the free flow of information that Italy has enjoyed to date from its general populous will diminish greatly.  Is is also ethical to hold host providers legally responsible for content that users upload?

I suspect that most people expected Google to walk out of the courtroom free of charges instead of three top executives being convicted and handed suspended six-month sentences. The news from Italy sent shock waves around the world, and it has been interesting to view the variety of news headlines on this topic.

– Google Europe: A No Good, Very Bad Week (link)

– Google Exec’s are arrested in Italy for “GOOGLING IT”! (link)

– Italian conviction of Google execs could aid traditional media (link)

– Google Feels Noose Tighten in Italy, Brussels, China, US (link)

– Fascism alive and well? Italian court rules against Google (link)

– Larger Threat Is Seen in Google Case (link)

– Google Executives Convicted by Italian Court: In unprecedented ruling threatening free speech and the entire web (link)

– Europe’s Got More Problems Than Just Greece (link)

Google’s Case in Italy Was Always Lose-Lose (link)‎


About repplinger

John has served as a Reference Librarian at Willamette University since 2002. He is the liaison to the Science Departments, and is responsible for maintaining the collections related to the life & physical sciences. His research interests range over the entire spectrum of libraries and information sciences, but includes: - Google and its influence on information & society - The Internet's influence on information seeking & sharing behaviors - Trends of scholarly communication - Electronic learning environments - Traditional pedagogy - GIS use in academic libraries

Posted on February 25, 2010, in Censorship, Ethics, Google, Privacy, Social Networks, Videos and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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