Google and Media in the Internet Age
By Tony Kontzer
No doubt we've all read with interest the abundant coverage (San Francisco Chronicle report here) of an Italian court convicting three Google executives on privacy charges. The court determined that the executives--global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, chief legal officer David Drummond, and retired CFO George Reyes--violated Italian privacy laws by failing to promptly remove a video depicting a boy with Down syndrome being abused and ridiculed by teens.
Opinions were flying fast and furious Thursday as the digital world reacted to what most people seemed to find a disturbing development. "The sky is falling!" they declared, fretting over the implications for online freedom of expression. "Unfair burden!" they cried, suggesting that the decision ranks up there with Italy's alliance with Nazi Germany as one of the country's darkest hours.
If you follow my Twitter feed, then you already know I also feel the ruling was wrong-headed. But a threat to all that is holy and sacred about the Internet? That may be taking things a bit far at this early juncture.
I prefer the more level-headed approach taken by PC World, which argued that Google was in a damned-if-did, damned-if-it-didn't Catch 22. If I'm the Google execs in question--and this is assuming they had ANY idea that the video in question even existed before the issue was brought to their attention, which seems unlikely--I'd much rather take my chances with a judge in a secondary market like Italy than with my bread-and-butter user base. (A user base that, incidentally, wants all the content it can devour, regardless of appropriateness.)
In fact, I'd go so far as to say the Italian court's actions are just what was needed, that it's time to have a serious discussion about how the rules that publications have adhered to for generations should evolve to accommodate the Internet age. I've been thinking about this topic a lot of late, from a journalist's perspective. The rules of journalism have changed drastically as our former paradigm--in which words were etched in paper, which might as well be stone, destined to linger forever--gave way to one that allows us to change, fix or remove our content before much of the audience even gets a chance to see it. The one thing we can't do is take what we've written back entirely, but I'm sure some MIT whiz is working on that one as I type this.
But making things more complicated is the debate as to whether Google's partial dependence on user-controlled content should protect it from the burdens of responsibility shared by authentic online news outlets. Newspapers and magazines and television shows decide exactly what information they present. Google does not. The same rules simply can not be applied.
It seems the Italian court wants Google held to the old media standard, as ZDNet's Tom Foremski wrote Thursday. That, I have to admit, may be the big mistake, one that--if strengthened by future court rulings--could eventually prove that the sky-is-falling reactions from the protectors of all that is holy and sacred about the Internet aren't so crazy after all.