Google conviction sparks debate over internet freedom

Google distribution (image by Jason Cartwright, Flickr, CC) I’ve put up a few posts recently that revolve around multi-national technology giant Google, both for positive and negative reasons, and today’s news has once again brought the company right into the ethical spotlight.  An Italian judge has convicted three Google executives and given each a six-month suspended sentence because of a video of an autistic boy being bullied that was uploaded onto Google’s video service in 2006.

At the time, the clip led to criminal convictions for those involved in the creation and dissemination of the video; however this recent conviction has led to a flurry of debate and discourse over the very nature of the internet and who should be held ultimately accountable for uploaded content.

On the one hand there are those that argue that Google should be held accountable for providing a platform, and in particular that they should have responded much more quickly to complaints about the video clip which took two months to be taken down.  Proponents of this side of the argument are also quick to point out that business models and the corporate interests of companies such as Google should not be allowed to override ethical boundaries of human decency – and in this area they certainly seem to have a valid point.

The other side of this debate are arguing very strongly that this verdict – if upheld on appeal – threatens to damage the very core principals of the internet and undermine the tool for freedom of expression that it has become.  In my opinion, convicting Google executives in this manner (individuals who, it must be added, were not even aware of the video until after it was removed) is akin to convicting the manufacturers of the video camera used to film the bullying.

It isn’t just as easy as saying that Google, or other companies who provide user-created content services on the internet, must work harder to ensure that all uploaded content meets legal and ethical requirements.  The sheer amount of data uploaded has long since surpassed any amount that could possibly be monitored by the companies themselves – which is the very reason why the idea of having users flag content as inappropriate is so ubiquitous.  It just isn’t feasible to have all content examined before being made public.

Of course, Italian authorities are no strangers to battles with internet expression; and there have been clear signs over the past few years that many within the Italian government and other positions of authority would like to see some limitations placed upon just how free expression is on the internet.  China is notorious for their censorship and prosecution of those who wish to speak out against their government online.

However, I do think that it is very unlikely that, should this conviction be upheld, there will be any wide-reaching impact on a fundamental level.  But it could still set a precedent which would make online businesses and services much more difficult to run, which ultimately would damage the very fabric of the internet as we now know it.

In the end, this recent ruling seems to revolve around the time lag between the content being uploaded and then subsequently removed.  European law is very clear that internet hosting providers cannot be held accountable for content uploaded onto their services by individual users – at least not without very clear evidence that the provider was explicitly aware of and therefore culpable for the contents continued distribution.

This seems to be yet another debate that has arisen out of a very deep misunderstanding of the manner in which the internet as a medium of expression operates, and how companies that provide hosting services are able to react to inappropriate content.  Hopefully any misunderstandings will be cleared in later appeals and this particular case won’t have long lasting effects on our freedom of expression – but then, maybe we take such freedom so for granted that we are unable to envisage the many instances where it may be used to further corporate agendas over the rights of individuals.

Let us know what you think – which side of this debate do you find yourself on?  Should there even be sides, or are the issues involved just to complex to label simply as a battle surrounding ‘freedom of expression’?  Are there ethical arguments as to why this conviction should be upheld?


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