Policing Social Media – A Showdown is Looming

It’s easy to criticize the Italian government for convicting three Google executives for a video uploaded to YouTube, but the situation is more complex than it appears.

"Come quietly or there will be... trouble."

The video in question showed a group of students bullying an autistic child and an Italian court in Milan ruled that the video violated the privacy rights of the young victim.  The court convicted the Google executives because Google owns YouTube and determined that the executives were responsible for the content that is showcased on the web site they control.

The three Google executives received six-month suspended sentences.  Google has vowed to appeal the ruling, which it called “a serious threat to the web.”

According to Google:

“The charges brought against them (the Google executives) were criminal defamation and a failure to comply with the Italian privacy code. To be clear, none of the four Googlers charged had anything to do with this video. They did not appear in it, film it, upload it or review it. None of them know the people involved or were even aware of the video’s existence until after it was removed.”

Here’s Google’s main argument:

“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.”

However, the court in Milan counters (according to Reuters):

“The prosecutors accused Google of negligence, saying the video remained online for two months even though some Web users had already posted comments asking for it to be taken down.”

It seems ludicrous to me that Italian authorities targeted Google employees for criminal charges.  If they believed Google – via its ownership of YouTube – had violated Italian law why didn’t they go after Google – the corporation?

However, the Italian case brings up a fundamental question about the Internet and social media networks like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and dozens of others.

Should web sites be held responsible for the content created by their users?

Most people would probably side with Google and other web sites. After all, why should Google be held responsible for the millions of videos already uploaded on to YouTube?  Is it even possible to police that enormous amount of content?  There are reports that it would take 256 years for a single person to watch every video on YouTube if they started now and watched 24 hours a day.

And how could Facebook police status updates?  Facebook users write 60 million of them – each and every day.

But there is an argument for it.  Take real world examples from the United States.  Bar owners can be criminally charged for serving too much alcohol to patrons if they are arrested for drunk driving or harm as a result of being impaired by alcohol.  Movie theaters, nightclubs and restaurants can be held criminally responsible for negligence if they don’t provide clearly marked exits or have proper sprinkler systems and other safety devices in place.

Hospitals are regularly sued for the behavior of their doctors.  Cities and towns can be held liable for the behavior of their police officers, firefighters and other employees.

In other words, places – establishments – can be held responsible for the behavior that occurs on their property.

So why not social networks and web sites?

It is not uncommon for many web sites not to police their user generated content at all.  Look at the comment sections of any major newspaper or magazine.  It’s a free-for-all of snarkiness, profanity and rudeness.  So should the publications be responsible for any liable content?  And a bigger question: If they don’t police or monitor their comments then why offer it in the first place?

YouTube has a stringent list of regulations in its community guidelines.  The site forbids pornography or sexually explicit content.  It won’t allow videos of drug use, bomb making or animal abuse.  It does not allow videos of people being physically hurt or humiliated.

From the guidelines:

“YouTube staff review flagged videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate our Community Guidelines. When they do, we remove them. Sometimes a video doesn’t violate our Community Guidelines, but may not be appropriate for everyone. These videos may be age-restricted. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination. If your account is terminated, you won’t be allowed to create any new accounts.”

Clearly, YouTube has limits to what it considers appropriate.  But why should they be the ones to determine the code of conduct?  Bar owners in the U.S. aren’t free to set their own rules.  They have to live by the laws of society.  So if YouTube is policing its users – then why can’t governments police YouTube?

If a government believes content on YouTube has caused harm then shouldn’t YouTube be held responsible in the same way as other property owners are? And to add complexity – which laws will govern?  Should web sites in the U.S. have to comply with laws in China and vice-versa?

It’s a question with multiple layers – and more complex than it appears on the surface.

Because what if YouTube did allow videotapes of animal deaths and pornography?  What then?

The Italian case isn’t going to be an anomaly.  These types of situations are going to increase as societies try to adapt to the rapid cultural changes taking place as a result of the Internet and social networking.  Figuring out the boundaries and where real life intersects with virtual life and how to monitor and police the web is going to be one of the biggest issues of the next decade.

What’s your opinion of what happened to Google in Italy?  Should web sites and social networks be responsible for the content they allow others to display on their sites?

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