In an editorial on the Sydney Morning Herald website, Marin Sherrard attempts to make a case supporting the conviction of three Google executives in Italy last week for violating privacy laws. My guess is that, as a member of a traditional media outlet, his frame of reference is too narrow to understand the issue. In other words, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail.
His entire dissertation rests on his assertion that Google is like a traditional publisher (ie: Newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio) and therefore has the same responsibilities.
Put simply, publishing is making information public — newspapers, radio and TV stations have done it for years and, more recently, internet publishers have appeared. The laws haven’t changed just because a bunch of new kids arrived on the block.
But, Google was not the publisher of the video that showed the bullying of a disabled teenager in Turin. A more accurate analogy would be to compare Google to a printer, which simply takes the material from the publisher and puts it on paper for distribution. Printers do not read what they print, nor do they have any obligation to judge it.
While Google has a responsibility to assist law enforcement in identifying someone who broke the law when a legitimate warrant is served, additional action on their part does more harm than good. While Google had the option to remove the video if it chose to do so, it should have no obligation to take any action without a court order and the reason is simple. If Google is under a legal requirement to remove any content that receives a privacy complaint, all the information on their network would be held hostage to anyone who complains regardless of the legitimacy of the complaint. In the newspaper analogy, that would mean giving every reader of the newspaper veto power over its content. Google is right to be measured in responding to such complaints.
The trial in Italy is basically trying to make Google into a policeman for all the content that flows through its network. Any corporation that is forced to judge content is going to err on the side of caution rather than risk prosecution. That incentive to be overly cautious will result in them being more restrictive than necessary, ultimately censoring legitimate expression to avoid even the slightest legal risk.
Radio and TV employ many people for each information channel, whereas the Google has millions of independent information channels. Google transports in a flash, the same amount of data that is distributed through all the world’s newspapers in a year. They would not have the resources to investigate every complaint, so they would be forced to summarily delete content at the whim of those who complain, essentially ending free expression as we know it.
Obligating Google, under penalty of law, to respond to every complaint about that many information sources and that volume of content is not just a little impractical. It is so far out in the weeds as to be imbecilic.