About five years ago, I received a phone call from the BBC asking if I’d provide comment on TV news. The story – you may recall the headlines – was that an Italian court had found three Google executives guilty because the Italian version of YouTube had shown a video of some schoolkids bullying an autistic child.
The Beeb asked me to be a talking head because I’d written about freedom of speech and the freedom of the internet (which I believe in strongly). I jumped at the chance to spout some more on the subject. On this occasion, though, it turned out to be a perfect example of what barrister and writer A.P. Herbert termed “misleading cases”.
The facts as first presented were these. Italian YouTube broadcast a video of an autistic teenager being bullied (some reports say slapped around) by his classmates. For some sick reason, the video became immensely popular and rose to the most-watched position. Google (owners of YouTube) were asked to take down the video and did so.
However, three Google executives were charged with violating Italy’s privacy laws and a panel of judges found them guilty, sentencing them to six month suspended sentences. It sounded to me like a straightforward miscarriage of justice.
I caught a train to the BBC TV Centre and used the travel time scanning the net for the latest media developments. I found a photograph of the three grey-haired, elderly looking judges who had handed down the sentences and began to make notes on the case for my appearance in front of the cameras.
Of course, I sympathised with the plight of the boy who was bullied – I hate bullying just as much as I hate censorship. But it seemed to me that three crusty old geezers, who probably didn’t know the first thing about the internet, had confused the message with the messenger.
Google is the finest free information service in the world and I felt it should be protected from all attempts at censorship. Invoking privacy laws was exactly the kind of censorship that must be fought.
Besides, Google had entered a perfectly good defence. They had taken down the offending video when asked to do so. Google is merely a democratically open broadcasting channel, not an editor or a censor. In any case, said the company, it would not be technically feasible for them to monitor all the material that users upload – there are thousands of hours of video uploaded every day of the week.
All these seemed perfectly good arguments, but something was nagging at me, so I went back and read the news reports more closely. I found that the three judges who had handed down the sentences, rather than clueless old codgers, were very much on the ball. In explaining their judgment they pointed out that YouTube was making money from the video in advertising revenue. The longer the video stayed at the number one spot, the more money Google made.
Parents and other users asked YouTube several times to take down the video , but they took no action until the police contacted them and advised them to stop broadcasting. The judges said that they reached their guilty verdict specifically because Google was making money out of the boy’s misery.
I started to think about Google’s defence – that it was technically unfeasible for it to monitor uploads and soon realised that this argument is bogus. To start with, one never, ever, sees anything on YouTube that is illegal – no home-made “snuff” movies (with the possible exception of ISIL’s deliberate murders for the news media) , no bestiality, no sexual abuse of young children and the like – even though all these things exist on the internet.
So how, I wondered, did YouTube manage to intercept and remove such stuff if it was not monitoring? And the answer, of course, is obvious. It’s the viewing figures. Google’s staff don’t need to monitor the bottom of the pyramid – just the top. If any uploaded material makes it into the top 10,000, or top 5,000, or top 1,000, it immediately comes in for scrutiny. If it’s illegal, it gets the chop.
In the case of the Italian video, it didn’t just make it into the top 10,000 – it made it all the way to the Number One spot, and stayed there while Google racked up ad revenue. They could have deleted this video at any time, long before it started upsetting parents and teachers. But they held back for purely commercial reasons and that was why the judges convicted them.
By the time I arrived at the TV Centre my view had changed dramatically and I think the newscaster was slightly surprised to hear me congratulating the Italian judges and condemning Google.
Sadly, this happy ending didn’t last long. Google felt its reputation was at stake and used its billions to get the verdict overturned at a superior court.
However, the good news is that some Italian judges are still allowing their judgments to be guided by facts rather than by politics or multinational corporations. Today Italy’s highest court has ruled that the theft of a sausage and piece of cheese by a homeless man did not constitute a crime because he was in desperate need of food.
As the Italian newspaper La Stampa reported, ‘for supreme court judges, the right to survive still trumped property rights, a fact that would be considered “blasphemy in America”.’