Net effect

An Italian court verdict convicting three Google executives for violating privacy laws has been criticised for undermining freedom of expression on the Internet. The verdict has come in a case filed by an advocacy group for people with Down syndrome, drawing attention to a 2006 video uploaded on Google video which showed an autistic teenager being beaten and humiliated by bullies at a school in Turin. Google sought to defend itself with the argument that it removed the offending video within 24 hours of being alerted and helped authorities investigate and nab those who posted it online. This might be so. Still, it does not get Google off the hook. Google’s claim that it is impossible to screen the content of videos uploaded on the site given the large number that are posted every day is a specious argument. The Internet search engine company cannot wash its hands off content on its websites and seek to absolve itself of responsibility for what is posted there.

Those critical of the verdict point out that if websites, online social network and community bulletin boards are responsible for vetting every single piece of text, photograph, video or file that is uploaded on to them, then the Internet as it exists today will cease to be. This would deny the world the many social, economic, political and other benefits that the Internet has brought. Critics have issued dire warnings of the implications of the court verdict. They have accused the Italian courts of censorship and pointed to the limits it imposes on the right to freedom of expression.

The Internet has allowed individuals immense freedom of expression. And indeed its role as a democratising force must be hailed. Yet, freedom of expression cannot be infinite. There is a limit to what can be said, written or shown. Being offensive, insulting and inflammatory cannot be justified in the name of freedom of expression. The right to freedom of expression is important and must be fiercely guarded. But just as important is the individual’s right to privacy. Will those who are now engaging in highfalutin rhetoric about the exciting emancipatory potential of the Internet and their right to unrestricted freedom of expression on this medium defend this right as vigorously if videos of their private lives or clips of their children being humiliated are posted on the Internet for all to see?

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