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Stephen Logan

Should Internet Content Hosts Be More Accountable?

25th Feb 2010 Social Media, Facebook, News, Industry News 3 minutes to read

Following yesterday’s guilty verdict for three Google executives accused of breaching privacy laws in the Italian courts, will sites now have to be more accountable for the content that they host?

This could well prove to be a landmark ruling in the history of the Internet. The air of invincibility surrounding content hosts has been well and truly shattered. With high ranking executives being handed suspended jail sentences, any lethargy towards removing illegal or damaging content on sites has been forcibly quashed with one drop of a judge’s gavel.

But who exactly is accountable for content? Should the executives bear the brunt for something they’ve (most likely) never had any prior knowledge of? Should there be more blocks in place to ensure that any content that is deemed offensive or goes against the terms of use never sees the light of day, or at the very least, is removed quickly?

Google’s problems in Italy essentially stem from an inactive response to complaints about the content posted on their site [see: Google Face Double Trouble in European Courts]. Having been alerted to a video that contained bullying of an autistic child by the charity Viva Down, they took a couple of months to remove it from YouTube. It appears this inactivity in reacting to a very serious breach of their terms of use is what made them culpable.

Malcolm Coles has this morning posted his own counter-argument – Why Italy was right to find Google guilty. This covers the intricacies of the case in a little more detail, outlining exactly why the judgement should be seen as less of a shock and more of a wake-up call.

But this isn’t just about Google or YouTube. There are thousands of content providers out there. Every blog or website that offers the right of reply, any social media site that hosts links and images, or any file sharing service is responsible for the content that they host. Whether it is content produced by the site or users of it, this ruling highlights the need for vigilance.

Ignorance is no longer an excuse. In the past Facebook has found itself in trouble for hosting holocaust denial pages, which it eventually removed after a public outcry [see: Craigslist & Facebook Highlight the Need for Standards in Content]. In fact, today the same site has come under renewed pressure after ‘memorial pages’ for two Australian children were defaced. These pages were specifically set up by friends and family to provide a forum to share memories, pictures and pass on messages to the deceased. But now they appear to have become targets for individuals intent on causing distress through the proliferation of lurid material and unpleasant messages.

In both instances though, it has been public and media attention that has forced the social networking giant to act. There has never been a legal prerogative to do so. In the light of Google’s problems in Italy, this might be a thing of the past.

Whilst the convictions of the three Google executives might be a flash in the pan, it could also be a warning of things to come. Content is under the microscope and providers will have to be more vigilant. Whilst it might not be possible to individually monitor every piece of content uploaded, particularly in cases such as YouTube who claim to have 20 hours worth of video uploaded every minute, hosts will have to be more open to public feedback.

When complaints arrive, as they did with the Italian privacy case, they have to be dealt with. Mothballing them until public outrage or legal action dictates a change won’t be accepted. So far content in poor taste has been accepted as a bi-product of a globally available medium like the Internet; will this judgement help to open people’s eyes that something can and should be done to prevent its spread?

But who is really to blame? Should the onus really be on the hosts or should penalties be greater for those that choose to spread disturbing or illegal material? Can there be a middle-ground where both are equally to blame, assuming no action is taken by the host? What can be done to stop Internet attacks and their spread?

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