May 30, 2020
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Convicting Google

The conviction of Google executives by a court in Italy raises important questions that must be answered as the Internet becomes more ubiquitous globally. But warnings that the Italian case could doom the Internet are overblown because the country’s restrictions far exceed those in many other countries, notably the United States.

Google, which has grown from a search engine to a company that provides tools for many aspects of computer use, is increasingly a target of regulators in Europe and other countries. The European Union is investigating whether the company violated antitrust laws.

In the Italian case, three Google executives were found guilty for violating privacy laws by not more quickly removing a video of Italian teens harassing a boy with autism. The video was posted by one of the perpetrators. It was online for two months before Google was notified of its existence. The company said it took the video down within two hours of being told about it.

Further, the company cooperated with Italian authorities as they identified the teenagers, who were sentenced to community service for the bullying.

What the teens did was clearly wrong. But if there had been no video evidence of their abuse, they may not have been caught and the bullying could have continued. The fact that the teens were not convicted of a crime and Google executives were makes the case even more puzzling.

At its heart, the Italian case is about corporate responsibility and how far it extends. Google executives have likened the court ruling to punishing the mailman for delivering an unpleasant letter. This is an apt comparison. While sending illicit drugs through the mail is illegal, the sender and recipient are prosecuted, not the postal service or the postal carrier.

And what about the thousands of people who viewed the video without complaint? Should they be prosecuted for violating the boy’s “human dignity,” as Google officials were charged with by Italian prosecutors?

Google, the company argues, is a carrier. The Italian court — and many Italian lawmakers — argue that it is more like a media company and should be responsible for the content it hosts. Italian officials argue that the company should screen all the content on its site. The company says that 20 hours of video are posted to its site every hour so prescreening would grind the site’s interactivity to a halt.

The relative lack of restriction on Internet activity in the U.S. is credited with spurring innovation here. That may be true, but the Italian case should also serve as a reminder that such innovation comes with a responsibility — shared by all users of the Internet — to police one another.

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