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Google case in Italy may alter Web experience

"Don't be Evil" is the well-known and beloved motto of the search engine altruist Google, so the Italian court system's recent finding that three Google executives were guilty of violating Italian privacy laws, seems somewhat paradoxical.

The three men were convicted for their involvement (or lack thereof) with a video posted in 2006 to Google's now extinct video-posting platform, appropriately titled Google Video. The YouTube-like video showcased a band of degenerate teenagers tormenting and beating up an autistic classmate. Not only is this case the first conviction that holds Google executives criminally responsible for user-submitted content, but could mean major setbacks for the future of the Internet.

The decision by the Italian court has sparked an overwhelming amount of controversy across the Internet world with news sources and bloggers alike feeling generally baffled.

The Wall Street Journal referred to the decision as a "judicial folly," going as far as to claim the charges are "crazy, even for Italy." The National Post out of Canada brought back haunting memories of Mussolini by voicing, "Fascism is alive and well," while David Neal's, a writer from London-based Incisive Media, frankly stated the conviction is "a blow against common sense and Internet freedom."

Google even entered the mix by posting a rare, emotionally charged blog post defending the actions of the three executives. The post tells the story behind the video, saying the Google executives were completely unaware of the video (and its content) until after Italian police contacted the company and the video had been removed.

The Google representative also cites a law created by the European Union meant to protect host companies like Google. The law states that content-driven host companies will be given a safe harbor and will not be held accountable for illicit content as long as they remove the content upon receiving notification.

Google removed the content within two hours of notification by Italian police.

The blog comes to a close with a passionate rant about how the decision "attacks the very principles on which the Internet is built."

What are these principles?

According to Google, the Internet should act as a free and open platform for free speech, communication and innovation. The Internet Freedom Coalition shares the same ideals behind Internet freedom as Google, but lists their freedom goals as three opposing issues that face the freedom of the Web:

1. The Internet should not be taxed.
2. The Internet should not be subject to regulations.
3. The United Nations should never have any attempt to control the Internet.

Having these principles protected means granting us access to information any time of day, and sharing thoughts, pictures and videos wherever possible with whomever we wish.

But what could the Italian ruling against Google execs mean for the future of the Internet?

Basically, holding the trio of executives criminally responsible for the content submitted by the Italian teenagers implies that Google is no longer a host for free content, but a regulated media distributor. No different from a newspaper or television station, Google and other host services would become regulated entities and would be required to meticulously monitor every piece of media uploaded to its services.

A Google representative reacted to the possibility of monitoring video content posted to Google owned sites like YouTube, saying it would be unthinkable given the fact that 20 hours of video is uploaded every minute.

This decision also could have an impact on the business models for social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, implying these sites will be responsible for every message, picture and video uploaded to the system.

Having these limitations could drastically alter the way we experience the Internet. Not to say posting questionable and offensive content is good, but where will these regulations stop? Will the Internet eventually become a platform guided by the government to influence our decision making process and dictate how we think?

The Italian court system's decision is interfering with our basic human right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Regulating this freedom drastically limits our options to access information that hinders innovation.

Google does, however, get to appeal the decision made by the Italian court, and they plan to do so "vigorously."

Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, March 8th.

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