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Poll: Italian court convicts Google executives over user-uploaded video

February 24, 2010 | 11:59 am

Google Google has experienced a rough few weeks overseas lately. If you'll recall, the Internet search giant threatened last month to pull out of China entirely after discovering that hackers had breached the the Gmail accounts of several human-rights activists, and the European Commission announced Tuesday it was probing Google for potential antitrust violations.

Comes now more bad -- err, bizarre -- Google-related news from across the pond: An Italian court convicted three of the company's top executives for violating the privacy rights of a boy with Down Syndrome whose bullying session at the hands of a few depraved youngsters had been posted on YouTube. Understandably, the decision has generated a considerable amount of negative reaction from the online tech commentariat. Here's more.

Google noted in a blog post that it did all the things that ordinarily would be expected of a Web hosting company under the circumstances. It removed the video “within hours of being notified by the Italian police.” And it worked with the police in Turin to identify the female student who posted it; she was eventually prosecuted and sentenced to perform 10 months of community service.

But prosecutors weren’t satisfied, so they went after Google. Under that same logic, they could just as easily have hauled into court the company that made the mobile phone that took the video. It’s a “devil made me do it” way of viewing the case, rather than one grounded in what actually happened. Sadly, the same attitude informs many of the legal battles involving content online. Copyright holders sue file-sharing networks and search engines, arguing that because a tool can be used to infringe, its makers must be held responsible when infringements happen. People who are insulted on an online forum sue the company that provides the virtual meeting space. In the U.S., courts have largely resisted holding the intermediaries liable unless they promoted the bad actions or ignored the complaints of injured parties. But that legal regime is under constant attack from those who’d rather attack a big, easy target than the people actually responsible.

The Times will weigh in on the Google verdict on tomorrow's editorial page. In the meantime, tell us what you think about the central question of the case -- whether companies should bear primary responsibility for the content users post on their Web sites -- by taking our poll, leaving a comment or doing both.

-- Jon Healey and Paul Thornton

Photo credit: Ryan Anson / Bloomberg

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