Elsewhere, governments are putting pressure on Google to police the content that users upload to its sites. In late February, three Google executives–Drummond, Peter Fleischer, global privacy counsel, and George Reyes, former CFO–were convicted of criminal charges in Italy for failure to comply with the Italian privacy code. The charges were brought in response to a video uploaded to YouTube. Google notes that these executives “did not appear in [the video], film it, upload it, or review it,” and that the video was removed from the site “hours” after the Italian police notified the company.
“In essence, this ruling means that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload,” wrote Matt Sucherman, Google’s vice president and deputy general counsel for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
Wong says that Google’s battles in China, Italy, and Australia all ultimately threaten the company’s ability to publish user-generated content, since liability for what users upload and access would mean needing to police it, which would be financially and legally difficult.
But Wong points to a key difference in China. Under U.S. and European laws, there are strong protections for companies that host or index content, she says. Because of this, in Italy, for example, Google can challenge the ruling through the legal system. In China, the situation is very different–every intermediary down the line can be held responsible for content, regardless of where it came from. That legal situation promotes self-censorship, she says.
Google is well-known for explaining its actions by an altruistic-sounding refrain: “What’s good for the Internet is good for Google.” But Evgeny Morozov, a Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University’s E.A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, notes that the anticensorship position the company has promoted is also directly related to the bottom line.
If Google gets forced, by any country, into the position of having to police and restrict what content users can access, Morozov says, this draws the company into a morass of expense and liability. He believes Google has “a strong commercial interest” in maintaining a role as a simple intermediary, which lets it focus on developing its search and other money-making technologies.
Morozov says this also explains why Google is framing many of these free speech issues in terms of international trade. Especially since the company faces questions of censorship all over the world. “The governments are finally catching up with the Internet and they want to regulate it,” Morozov adds. The question for Google is how well it can protect its stance on Internet freedom, wherever that battle is being fought.