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Privacy & Data

The Italian Job

How do you say very dangerous in Italian? How about Italian prosecutors filing criminal charges against four Google executives for the content of a video posted by a user. By all accounts, the video – an ugly three minute display featuring teenagers bullying a boy with Down’s syndrome – was quickly removed from the site and Google helped identify the perpetrators. But the prosecutors taking the extreme position that YouTube is legally responsible for all third parties content posted on its site, charged the Google executives with criminal defamation and privacy infringement.

While the United States and Europe may have different legal views about the scope free expression and protection of privacy, both have recognized that importance of protecting so-called intermediaries, ISPs and online platforms from liability for content posted by third parties. That legal protection has been crucial to the health and growth of the Internet. Without it, sites like YouTube would have to review each video before posting and make a legal judgment as to whether each complied with the laws of hundreds of countries. This is an undoable task that would write an end to the open Internet. We already have a medium where platform owners get to pick and chose among content and government gets to punish them for getting it wrong. Its called television.

It’s bad enough that Italian prosecutors are putting Google and every other online content platform at risk with their shenanigans. They are also setting a dangerous precedent, which can only strengthen the hand of repressive regimes that already exert iron-fisted control over the Internet.

This is not the first time a zealous European prosecutor tried this stunt. Germany went after a CompuServe manager for porn posted on the site and of course France charged Yahoo officials for permitting the sale of Nazi paraphernalia. In both cases, cooler heads ultimately prevailed. We can only hope that happens here. Until then, it’s molto pericoloso out there in cyberspace.