A frightening precedent was set in Italy last week, which outside of the country itself seemed to have nominal impact in the press, but which could undermine the ‘net as we know it, at least as far as content hosting and delivery is concerned. The initial incident in question occurred in 2006, when an autistic child was bullied at school and the subsequent video put up on GoogleVideo – thankfully for the video to shortly be taken down after being alerted by Italian police. Google worked with the police to help uncover the person responsible for posting the video, and the perpetrator and several schoolmates in the video were subsequently charged.
But, last week the Italian courts convicted three Google executives (who received suspended sentences) of failing to comply with Italian privacy codes. Now, bear in mind none of the executives were in the video; condoned the content; nor knew of it until being made aware by the police and once that happened, worked with the police to ensure convictions for those responsible.
What this conviction raises is the prospect of platform owners being responsible for the content being created and put on them by users – the implications for the likes of YouTube, Twitter, MySpace and Facebook are massive. Essentially, this means that hosts can no longer disclaim responsibility for content, and thus be held responsible for illegal or reprehensible content whacked up on their sites.
How can this work in the long term, especially if it is replicated outside of Italy – how can a host network possibly monitor everything posted online without hugely deteriorating from the quality of service, and without massive investment in resources, if everything has to be checked rigorously?
More to the point, if hosting now includes responsibility, where does the line get drawn, given what might offend one person may be acceptable to another? I personally swear like an Australian in some of what I put online, but if this offends someone, should my content be taken down – and what makes their morals ‘better’ and more acceptable than my slightly sweary ones? Who is the judge in all this?
This conviction throws up some very worrying precedents not just for the internet hosting companies and content distributors, but for everyone associated with content creation as well.