Every once in a while, you come across a story that makes you shake your head in disbelief.
Today, that story comes out of Milan, Italy, where a judge has convicted two Google employees and a former employee for non-compliance of the Italian privacy code over a video that was uploaded to Google Video in late 2006. A fourth employee also faced charges but was not convicted.
In the video, students filmed and uploaded a clip of them bullying an autistic classmate, a clip that Google called "totally reprehensible" in a blog post this morning. Google said it took down the clip within hours of being notified about it by Italian authorities, In addition, the company worked with local police to identify the person who uploaded the video and that those involved were held accountable for their actions.
No one at Google had anything to do with that video, aside from taking it down. No one at Google appeared in it, filmed it, uploaded it or reviewed it. In fact, the company said, none of the four even knew about the video until after it was removed. Still, the courts held them responsible.
Google is, of course, appealing this "astonishing decision." But that's not the bigger issue, With its ruling, the Italian courts are basically holding hosting platforms - like Google Video - criminally responsible for the content that users upload. In its blog post, Matt Sucherman, the company's VP and Deputy General Counsel in Europe, wrote:
...we are deeply troubled by this conviction for another equally important reason. It 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.
I can't imagine that these convictions will be upheld. But then again, I would have never imagined charges being filed in the first place, let alone convictions coming out of those charges.