Who's responsible for web's unregulated side?

  • March 19, 2010
A recent verdict in Italy against executives of Google raises concerns for online media operations around the world. A Milan court convicted three Google Inc. executives Feb. 24 for violating the privacy of an Italian boy with Down’s Syndrome by letting a video of him being bullied be posted on the site in 2006.

Google will appeal the six-month suspended jail terms and said the verdict “poses a crucial question for the freedom on which the Internet is built,” since none of the three employees found guilty had anything to do with the offending video.

“They didn’t upload it, they didn’t film it, they didn’t review it and yet they have been found guilty,” said Google’s senior communications manager, Bill Echikson, in Milan.

The court convicted senior vice-president and chief legal officer David Drummond, former Google Italy board member George De Los Reyes and global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer.  None of them are based in Italy, but that is where the case will be appealed. The case was initiated by Viva Down, a charity serving people with Downs’ Syndrome. The organization’s executive believed the site did not remove the video soon enough after complaints. The video showed the victim being punched and kicked before one of the youths attacking him made a mocking call to the charity.

A case in Canada that touched in part on the same question of responsibility was that of Marc Lemire and Freedomsite.org last fall. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled, among other things, that owners of web sites cannot usually be held responsible for postings to user message boards. While many of us believe there is a moral and social responsibility, a medium that is built upon self-posting and complaint-based regulation cannot police itself in the same way that a traditional newspaper or magazine can.

Pondering the freedom and privacy aspects of these cases may seem like a bad case of asking the wrong questions. Parents, in particular, react with much stronger outrage about the bullying itself in the Italian case, and wonder a lot more about where the parents were than where the video came from. In fact, it’s quite likely that the availability of the video helped identify the bullies, who were later convicted in youth court.  All people of good sense reject racial supremacy and the drivel that passes for commentary on such web sites, but in a strict legal sense the site owner’s responsibility is met if content is removed when complaints are made. 

In another Canadian case that shone the spotlight where it belonged, a Quebec teenager in 2008 posted a series of YouTube videos purporting to show the desecration of a consecrated host. First hundreds and then thousands of people kept clicking on the “report abuse” feature, causing the videos to be taken down. True to the cliché about bulls and red flags, the teenager kept at it for weeks, re-posting, being removed and re-posting again with new material. Perhaps too focused on his “art” to cover his tracks, he began to include background scenery that made his hometown easy to identify. A vigilant viewer was able to trace the mailing address and contact the parents. In the end, the miscreant took the videos down himself (though not without some belligerent parting shots about Catholicism and his own freedom), because the discipline came from where it should have come from in the first place: his father.

In an earlier case, when someone tried to auction off a Communion host consecrated by Pope John Paul, e-Bay removed it following complaints. According to reports at the time, the young and non-Catholic “seller” did not realize what he was doing was all that serious and ended up regretting what he had done and perhaps a little more respectful of religious belief.

The media that allow people to put insulting, offensive and bizarre opinions and disturbing videos out for the world to see, without prior editorial regulation, are still fairly new. The need to do everything we can to help prevent young people from turning into violent bullies, and from having such painfully ignorant views in the first place, is not. There no question that parents and educators need to impart respect and courtesy from the earliest ages. Because if your child is upstairs posting sick videos to YouTube, it isn’t the site’s fault. And it shouldn’t take a letter from a total stranger to tell you that.

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