After reading articles and seeing on CNN journalists spreading a lot of misinformation about the recent Google vs. Italy case, I decided to write to clarify a few facts. In fact, I'm not sure I have an opinion... and doubt anyone is entitled to have one, at least for now. In any case, Italy has 3 grades of justice, so this is not a definite decision. Here are some facts:
1. We know a judge has sentenced three local Google executives. The sentence is for "privacy violation".
2. We don't know why and based on which evidence. The judge has three months to explain the rationale behind the decision, so it is hard to counter-argue: we don't know many details.
3. Google was found not liable for the video content ("defamation") and for not evaluating it in the first place. It is not true that Google was sentenced for the content of the video. Still, most comments are centered about the opposite. Including Google own comments!
4. YouTube has nothing to do. It was Google Video. I know, this is as similar service, but most journalist didn't get even this basic fact right. This is somewhat worrying.
5. Google did remove the video immediately after Italian police asked them. But many weeks after users of the site and associations protecting disabled people pointed to the video and ask for removal. So (apparently) they didn't take action even if solicited, only after the associations filed a complaint to the police. This might be part of the reason of the sentence, we don't know.
Now, how can be comment something we know basically nothing about? Hard. But a few things can be said. From a legal point of view, most of the issue relate to the fact whether Italian privacy law applies to Google or not. Of course, I have no clue about this.
The sentence is for privacy violation, which was done of course by the people uploading the video, not by Google... because they tell the name of the boy involved. Still I found this to closely map to copyright violations.
Suppose I go to YouTube and uplaod a copyrighted video. Not only I'm going against the law, but I'm also infringing the site policy, who clearly and repeatedly tells me not to upload copyrighted material. This happens on most (honest) file sharing sites. If I had a US site for sharing with no Digital Millenium Copyright Act information, I'll get some serious trouble. Is this different? Not much.
There is a trial against RapidShare in Germany about the fact they do very little to prevent copyright violations, and actually profit from them. Was the company accused, will you see the entire web commenting Germany is attacking the Internet? Quite the opposite, most people will be happy for it (myself inclued).
Now is the health, the respect, and the privacy of a disabled boy worth much less than copyrights? Probably yes, but this is a very sad thing few people are commenting about. This seems the key element of the sentence, again we'll know more in the future.
In Italy there is a law forbidding to show pictures of boys and girls in TV, on newspapers, and this applies also to the web. You need to have a signed disclosure to do the opposite. When I was helping a local politician with his web site, we got signed disclosure by parents to show a picture of him with a few kids. Is this censorship? Hardly, I'd say.
To comply with Italian laws a photo sharing site should warn users not to upload copyrighted pictures, x-rated pictures, and also pictures of kids. Nothing more and nothing less. This is what is at stake, not the freedom of the web, as Google claims.
We do have some singificant problems in Italy as the govern is trying to over-regulate the Internet, and the prime minister would like YouTube to disappear (and his media company has sued YouTube) because his TVs are loosing viewers. This is quite odd. But this has little or nothing to do with this sentece, which is about privacy laws. Privacy is a serious problem, as much as the freedom of speech. Yet, most comments tie the sentence to Italian political status. As much as I hate what's happening in my country, this is a lime excuse. The two are quite clearly unrelated.
To summarize, we know very little, there is a huge misinformation (not sure if spread on purpose, but it looks Google helped it), the are some credible reasons behind the sentence... and still I think it was a wrong decision, but not as bad as most have depicted it. Yes, I think the judge was wrong, but he apparently had some reasons for his sentence .
Finally (and this was my reason for writing this unusual post for me) I get very worried when I see dozens of journalists and thousands of bloggers repeat what they've heard without even trying to check the sources. Google said it, so it must be true. Considering they are involved, it is hard to treat them as "the source" of information. This is a problem in itself, regardless of what you think of this specific sentence.
Some references. You can see most of my ideas detailed in the comments to this blog post, specifically those from blogger Stefano Quintarelli (the post itself simply repeats what Google said, thanks a lot for the effort): http://www.buzzmachine.com/2010/02/24/italy-endangers-the-web/
(BTW, "we Americans invented the Internet so we decide how the world uses it" is slightly arrogant, don't you think? So the Swiss invented the Web at CERN and they should rule it? No, please!)
Prosecutors reasons are mentioned (if only shortly) by the NYT, in a slightly more balanced article than the average: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/25/technology/companies/25google.html
Final link: TechCrunch is a good example of the many articles get most info wrong info (and has an insulting attitude), starting with YouTube references: http://techcrunch.com/2010/02/24/can-someone-please-tell-this-italian-judge-what-youtube-is/