Italy endangers the web

Italy is endangering the web. It convicted three Google executives for privacy violations for a video that was posted on YouTube Google Video that Google took down when it received a complaint. By holding Google liable for the actions of a user, the Italian court is in essence requiring Google and every other web site to review and vet everything anyone puts online. The practical implication of that, of course, is that no one will let anyone put anything online because the risk is too great. I wouldn’t let you post anything here. My ISP wouldn’t let me post anything on its servers. Google wouldn’t let me post anything on it’s services. And that kills the internet.

In America, we have a First Amendment for the web called Section 230, which every nation needs. Section 230 say, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” It gives a provider safe haven to take down content that violates laws without finding the provider liable. The American Congress and courts knew — with impressive foresight — that such protection was necessary to protect discussion and free speech online. Of course, the interpretation of the law is an evolving beast, but the principle is vital.

Google says of the Italian decision:

It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built. Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming. 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. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and support free speech while protecting personal privacy. If that principle is swept aside and sites like Blogger, YouTube and indeed every social network and any community bulletin board, are held responsible for vetting every single piece of content that is uploaded to them — every piece of text, every photo, every file, every video — then the Web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear.

In the global, interconnected web, we live in constant danger of the lowest common denominator, of one court, legislature, or regime opening up liability that affects risk and behavior everywhere — like the U.K’s libel tourism, which enables miscreants to sue publishers if only one person saw the publication in the U.K.

This is why we need a set of principles protecting our freedom of speech on the web: not a law, not a treaty, nothing from government — see John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence for cyberspace. In the Google/China situation — in which Google acted as a quasi-state to protect rights (albeit belatedly) according to its principles — Rebecca MacKinnon argues for a constitution for cyberspace but I worry that it would become overloaded with clauses and conditions. In American historical terms, I say we already have a Declaration of Independence and I’d skip over the Constitution to get a Bill of RIghts that begins with its First Amendment: governments shall make no law no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble. Start there.