Google execs’ trial sparks important debate

Readers of this space know I am a big fan of Google — the company and the search engine — but the corporation has gotten itself in some legal hot water this summer in a closely watched case.

Readers of this space know I am a big fan of Google — the company and the search engine — but the corporation has gotten itself in some legal hot water this summer in a closely watched case.

It could have far-reaching implications for sharing video and other content on the Internet.

Four Google executives are going on trial in Italy, (in absentia), charged with defamation and violating the privacy of an autistic youth by allowing a video of bullies abusing him to be posted on YouTube. Google owns the video-sharing Web site.

The defendants are: chief legal officer David Drummond; former chief financial officer George Reyes; senior product marketing manager Arvind Desikan; and global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer. All have denied any personal or professional wrongdoing.

“We feel that bringing this case to court is totally wrong,” Google said in a statement. “It’s akin to prosecuting mail service employees for hate speech letters sent in the post.

The 2006 video showed the boy being beaten, taunted and insulted by some youths in Turin, Italy. One of them allegedly uploaded it to YouTube. When the video sparked outrage, Google eventually removed it. The company co-operated with Italian authorities and police found the youths, who were sentenced to community service.

Vivi Down, an advocacy group for people with Down syndrome, notified authorities of the video and continues to follow the case.

This is another example of national laws getting involved in international matters and the murky issues that pop up. EBay ran into this when Nazi memorabilia started showing up on that international selling platform; the company learned it was unlawful to sell such material in Germany and a few other European countries. EBay has since banned Nazi memorabilia.

I doubt anyone would argue that a video of bullies beating an autistic kid (or any person) belongs on the Internet. But the issue is: Who polices all of these peer-to-peer video sites? Some rely on the users themselves to flag inappropriate content so an administrator can handle it. However, that is a bit like closing the barn door after the cow has run off. Once the video is out there and people are viewing scenes of some kid being bullied, what is the responsibility of the company that has provided an open platform and said, “Hey, post what you want?”

Then again, what responsibility does the user have to avoid posting clearly offensive junk? The parents, to watch what their teens are doing and videotaping? What they are uploading? And the user community, to more aggressively flag the inappropriate junk? And what about YouTube and how quickly it reacts to remove offensive stuff?

As the trial unfolds, it can add more to public discussion — and, one hopes, give YouTube and similar sites more guidance on how to police themselves.

James Derk, a tech columnist for Scripps Howard News Service, owns CyberDads, a computer repair firm. E-mail him at jim@cyberdads.com

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