Italian decision could close “la porta” on user generated content

While there has been a lot of talk about the ridiculous Italian court decision this week that held Google executives accountable for an offensive video posted on their site, I’m not sure that people realize how damaging this could be for the whole concept of online freedom in Italy and elsewhere.

The case itself is the result of some juvenile (and disgusting) behavior on the part of a few Italian schoolchildren who recorded themselves bullying a disabled child and posted that video to Google’s Italian video sharing site. That was a horrible thing to do, but Google, by all accounts, fully cooperated with authorities in taking the video down and pointing investigators toward the perpetrator.

Despite all of that, this Italian decision found four current and former Google executives guilty of a criminal act in violation of Italian privacy laws. Wow. No one at Google made, uploaded or promoted this video. I’m no expert in Italian law, but I can see the far-reaching implications of a decision like this. This is the equivalent of charging the owner of a bathroom for something nasty someone wrote on the wall.

It seems that anyone with an open platform for user generated content of any kind in Italy is in pretty serious danger of violating the same laws. It doesn’t have to be video; it could be text, pictures, audio, whatever. Just imagine how much unfiltered content gets uploaded to sites like Twitter, Flickr and Blogger in Italy, just to name a few.

These web 2.0 properties are primarily free services. To comply with this decision, it would seem that they would need to have staff to filter through every single piece of user generated content. This is obviously a financial impossibility, and that means this could be the death of such services in Italy. As an EU member state, this would set a very dangerous precedent for the rest of Europe and the world.

Not surprisingly, Google is appealing this decision. As someone who cares about online freedom, I’ll be watching that very closely.

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