The Italian court ruled that Google didn't act quickly enough to remove a video showing a group of teenagers harassing an autistic boy, even though it was taken down just two hours after the police filed a complaint.
The ruling makes Google as a corporation responsible for all its content, an impossible constraint considering over 20 hours of footage is uploaded to Youtube every minute. And of course it's not just Google that will have these problems. Sites like Facebook, Flickr and Twitter abound with torrents of user generated content that the host corporations can't vouch for.
In Italy, which already has abysmally low rates of Internet usage, the ruling is widely seen in the context of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media baron who is keen to protect the dominance of his own news outlets and clamp down on possible venues for dissident speech. This puts Italy in the same boat as autocratic regimes like China and Russia. But European democracies are also part of this growing problem.
France just created a Orwellian sounding agency, The Higher Authority for the Distribution of Works and the Protection of Copyright on the Internet. Again, companies would be liable for the content uploaded to their sites. The new digital economy bill in the U.K. imposes similar strictures.These laws are aimed at protecting the 20th century business models of music and film distributors, but they end up leaving 21st century companies on the hook.
A smarter solution would craft legislation that facilitates cooperation between corporations and law enforcement and creates reasonable expectations for how quickly the companies should react. The easier it is for a complaint to be registered the faster companies can remove illegal material. Holding a sword over Google's head will only cripple their ability to do business without doing much to make the web a safer place.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Rogimmi, CC 2.0