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The Decline of the Internet Wild West February 28, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.

The world of the Internet shook more than a little with the news (here, among other sources) that a court in Italy convicted three Google managers for invasion of privacy in the case of an offensive video made available on the old Google Video site.  Apparently invasion of privacy, at least at the level being described, is a criminal offense in Italy (and therefore likely the European Union in general), as the defendants received six-month prison sentences (automatically suspended).

The technorati are up in arms at the verdict, claiming both common sense and well-established case law that typically indemnifies content hosts from content uploaded and made available by third parties.  Supporters of the conviction claim that Google should have been alerted by the popularity of the video that something was not kosher.

While it’s not clear how the specific managers were selected for prosecution, both sides agree that they had nothing to do with the creation of the video or its being made available online.

There’s a bit of “he said, she said” to this story, in that prosecutors are quoted as saying that the issue wasn’t one of responsibility for posting the offensive content, but rather for being slow to take it down in response to complaints.  Google said it responded appropriately.  The privacy violated was that of an autistic student in Turin being beaten and insulted by bullies at school.

There’s clearly not enough information in the published accounts of this story to make an educated (or even half-educated) analysis of whether this is a Google (and larger Internet) problem or an Italy problem.  But you can draw a couple of interesting conclusions with the information available.

First, there are and will continue to be tensions between the laws of government and the perceptions of reality on the Internet.  Some established laws in one or more countries don’t seem to apply well or are largely obsolete, yet laws and regulations change much more slowly than technology.

Second, and more telling, I think that the era where companies can claim that they aren’t responsible for content uploaded to their servers and made generally available on the Internet is gradually coming to a close.  Though I am not a lawyer, it seems to me that was always a dubious legal proposition, albeit largely supported by many governments.

While this trend is likely to take place over several years, it is going to cause significant concern to those who count on so-called “user-generated content” as a business strategy.  Many Internet businesses have turned to user-generated content as a model for operation because a) it’s cheap; b) it attracts visitor traffic, both to read the content and to comment; and c) it’s cheap.  Think reality TV.

Whether through existing broadcast regulations (although cable is not subject to the same regulations as broadcast TV), or through known conventions (you can get sexual content on TV, but you have to explicitly request it and pay extra for it), controversial content is much better managed on TV.  Of course, at least a part of that is the barrier to entry; we may do well to consider some level of barrier on the Internet, before one is imposed.  Barriers have been coming down, but the world may not be completely flat, and may never be.

Google plans to appeal the verdict.  No matter who prevails, take this conviction as fair warning that ownership of the servers will sooner or later mean that you have a responsibility for the legality of the content.

I wonder what that might mean for cloud computing, where servers are not only rented but also server instances are swapped in and out on demand?



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