Free the Google Three
Thomas Jones · Google on Trial
What with the European Commission's inquiry into its alleged anti-competitive behaviour and the controversy surrounding its megalomaniac digital library plans, not to mention the fiasco of Google Buzz, the irritating and privacy-invading social networking package that's now unavoidable for anyone with a Gmail account, Google's been in need of some positive publicity.
So in some ways, at least to the internet behemoth's PR department, the conviction yesterday of three executives for breaking Italian privacy laws must come as a relief: Google can for once cast themselves in their old and increasingly unconvincing roles of underdogs and good guys. They explain what happened on their blog:
In late 2006, students at a school in Turin, Italy filmed and then uploaded a video to Google Video that showed them bullying an autistic schoolmate. The video was totally reprehensible and we took it down within hours of being notified by the Italian police.
The post is headed 'Serious threat to the web in Italy'. The danger, according to Google, is that 'the Web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear.' This is, frankly, unlikely. As the Google post observes:
European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence.
So even if their appeal were to fail in Italy, they would just need to go to the European Court, where they'd almost certainly win. The worldwide web isn't in any imminent danger of disappearing – except, possibly, from Italy.
Someone who is likely to be cheered by the decision, for reasons of his own that have nothing to do with Google, is the Italian prime minister: as well as changing the law to protect himself, two of Berlusconi's favoured tactics for avoiding prosecution and staying in power are insisting on his right to privacy and silencing media he doesn't control. A law was recently passed making it illegal to incite civil disobedience online. If Google were really as concerned with 'the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built' as with their own bottom line, surely they'd have kicked up a stink about that, too.