MUMBAI, INDIA--Should I be allowed to smear you?
That's the question we ought to be asking in the wake of an Italian court decision that found Google criminally responsible for content uploaded to one of its sites. (The case revolved around the video of an autistic boy getting beaten up in Turin. The father sued, arguing that his son's privacy had been violated. Three Google executives were handed six-month suspended sentences in absentia.)
Instead, the story has been framed as an attack on freedom of speech. "The Web as we know it will cease to exist" if the ruling stands, claim Google's lawyers.
"It absolutely is a threat," affirms Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "If intermediaries like Google or the person who hosts your Web site can be thrown in jail in any country for the acts of other people and suddenly have a legal obligation to pre-screen everything anyone says on their Web site before putting it online, the tools for free speech that everyone uses on the Net would grind to a halt."
Even the U.S. State Department has issued public statements supporting Google. I think it's time to civilize "the Web as we know it."
Should I be able to libel you as a drug-addicted child pornographer? This column appears in print. If I were to write that you were a drug-addicted child pornographer, my editors would demand I source my allegation. Publications are liable for what they print.
On the other hand, I can post that atrocious lie to my blog. Within a few hours, thousands will have read it, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Not in Italy, though. Lawyers, juries and judges would look at my blog and ask: What difference does it make whether Ted Rall's column ran on Blogger or in The New York Times? There is no difference. Without a medium, the libel wouldn't have occurred.
Google and other "intermediary" online companies argue they aren't responsible for material hosted and posted on their services. "They didn't upload it, they didn't film it, they didn't review it, and yet they have been found guilty," said Google's senior communications manager, Bill Echikson, of the three execs.
I suspect courts, and not just in Italy, will see Google's argument as an admission of culpability.
It might be different if Internet aggregators weren't for-profit, or if they were what they say they are: service providers. You can't sue a service provider for the content it carries. The phone company provides a platform; it can't be sued if someone uses their lines for slander.
From a legal standpoint, Google is an old-fashioned content provider, relying on the same business model as the Times. They post content in order to generate ad revenue.
A late 2009 study by the Fair Syndication Consortium found that Google was responsible for 53 percent of the overall piracy of copyrighted newspaper articles online. Google illegally scanned millions of books without asking the authors' permissions. And the ad money rolled in--$1.97 billion in profits during the fourth quarter of 2009 alone.
It's not like Google can't afford to hire an editorial staff. Shouldn't they have to make sure that, for example, I don't libel you as some crazy porn gangster?