Should websites monitor user-generated content more carefully?

Can users be offered a high level of artistic freedom?

Two Google executives have recently been sentenced in Italy for privacy violation – because of a video that one of their millions of users posted to the YouTube website. The video, which had millions of views, featured a boy with Down’s Syndrome being maliciously bullied by his classmates.

Because the video was available for a relatively long time, was featured prominently by the site, and received substantial attention from third parties, the Judge found it unlikely that the two executives had not seen it.

In light of this scandal, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a businessman who made his money in traditional broadcasting, has called for user-generated video sites to be regulated in a way that would kill their business model.

This gives the scandal an overtly political dimension. The threat of video-sharing websites to traditional media put them at odds with Italy’s media tycoons, of which Silvio Berlusconi is undoubtably the leading figure. Two for two for Mr Berlusconi against Google, it seems.

The judgement seems to imply that video-sharing sites like YouTube are liable for the content that their users upload. This could be a major problem for the industry moving forward. Examples like the recent crackdown in China show how quickly political influence can kill the foundations of the internet: the sharing of knowledge, openness and creative ideas.

Imagine for a moment the Internet with every sentence of text, every segment of video and every single image having to pass a regulatory test before going live. It wouldn’t be the internet we know today – and it would cease to be of much use. We expect our communication to be instant, how would we cope with this degree of lag?

The internet is, in essence, an open communications platform. If you kill the openness, you kill the communication, which in turn kills the platform.

People have always done ‘naughty’ things – but in the age of global connectivity, their indiscretions can be seen within a matter of seconds, the world over. Society has to adapt to deal with this development.

We can’t monitor the twenty-four hours worth of footage uploaded to YouTube each minute. The sensible solution is the current practice: relying on users to report unsuitable content as quickly as possible. If Google were as concerned about breaching an individual’s privacy as a company’s intellectual property, their executives may well have not faced sentencing.

There will continue to be ‘user-generated’ success stories: companies and people who use the web to reach out to each other. The failures will continue too – that lies in the nature of people. We need to change how we deal with them, and how we react to them, to ensure that the promise of the internet is not overshadowed by the darker sides of human nature.

Luisa Keuler


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