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Google: guilty as charged? May 10, 2010

Posted by Mark Hillary in Government, IT Services, Outsourcing, Software.
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Last month, three Google executives in Italy were all given six-month suspended jail sentences in a criminal trial that has been condemned by Internet observers the world over.

What was their crime? To be country managers of Google – the owner of video-sharing service YouTube – and to not have taken fast enough action when a video of an autistic teenager being bullied was uploaded to the service.

It sounds bizarre, because YouTube clearly cannot have a human operator watching every second of every video and approving it personally. The site has more than 24 hours of video uploaded every single minute – and that’s only increasing.

YouTube has strong controls on adult content and an easy to use system for users to report abusive or offensive videos. The system means that the community polices itself, but being reactive it does mean that offensive content can be available for a period of time until reported.

But Judge Oscar Magi did not rule against YouTube for not offering a strong enough system of content control. He said: “In simple words, it is not the writing on the wall that constitutes a crime for the owner of the wall, but its commercial exploitation can.”

The Judge ruled the Google managers were guilty of criminal charges in this case because the YouTube system earns money from placing adverts around the videos, therefore in the eyes of the judge these executives were directly profiting from the abuse of a child. Is it a fair application of criminal law to state that it applies differently if the defendant was making money from their actions? It seems from the decision in this trial that if the Google executives were running YouTube as a public service, with no adverts or profit, then they might have no charge to answer to.

Now, that’s even more bizarre.