User-generated content on trial in Italy


Four Google executives are facing charges in Italy for a video that appeared in 2006 on YouTube. The video shows a boy with Down’s Syndrome teased by some schoolmates in Turin.

David Drummond (Former VP and CLO), George Reyes (former CFO), Peter Fleisher (Global Privacy Counsel) and a fourth unidentified
image London-based executive, are being held personally responsible for the content of that video.

Despite the international agreement that agrees on the “safe harbor” principle, meaning that neutral carriers are not liable for user-generated content as long as they promptly act to respond complains, Italian judges are still willing to nail them down.

The case is very important, not only for Italian law, but for the whole of Europe. The trial could end with a sentence claiming that Google should have prevented the publication of the video, simply because the subject of the video didn’t authorize it.

Moreover, it’s not a tort case, but a criminal one. The four managers could go to jail if found guilty by the judges. Criminal responsibility in Italy can be related only to people and not companies.

This would be a very dangerous precedent for any company which hosts user-generated content. For these parties to be found guilty creates an unclear legislative position about this matter. Both national and European legislators previously haven’t taken a clear specific position on this matter.
In the United States, copyright law clearly protects online services from liability if they respond to complaints quickly. This is a great help for small startup that can’t afford to hire a community surveillance team.

Still, constant moderating of comments and user uploads is not always the right move either. If an approved item ends up being contested, this could result in much more serious liability as it’s clearly proven that website’s owners willingly approved that content.

For now the best sites with user-generated content can do is act promptly when material is contested. And content should be moderated only after it has been automatically published. In the meantime, it will be interesting to follow the development of the Italian case and wait for an official EU position on this point.

Flickr images from users Hector.Milla and Vaxzine