Have Italian judges ’broken the internet’?

Yes, the Italian decision on Google was mad, but many of the British politicians slating it also have a dire track record on freedom of speech.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Free Speech

In September 2006, footage of an autistic boy, cowering as he was punched and kicked at a school in the Italian city of Turin, was posted on to the video-sharing site Google Video – by the proud culprits themselves. After two months of being a very popular, widely viewed video, it was finally removed by Google after a police tip-off, and the boys, following identification, were convicted at a youth court.

And that ought to have been that: the distasteful, degrading video was gone, and the teenage idiots had been punished. But that was not that. In 2007, prosecutors in Milan decided to bring charges against the video’s online hosts, Google. Four Google executives were to face trial for, in effect, the crimes of others. Firstly, as the boys had mocked the Italian Down’s syndrome charity Viva Down during the footage, the Google executives were accused of defamation. And secondly, as the boys had filmed their humiliation of the autistic boy and made it available to the public through Google Video, the Google chiefs were accused of invading the victim’s privacy.

After a very long trial, the verdicts were finally delivered this week. All four of the defendants were cleared of the defamation charges, but three, David Carl Drummond (Google Italy’s senior vice president), George De Los Reyes (a now-retired financial executive) and Peter Fleischer (privacy director) were found guilty of breaking privacy laws and given six-month suspended sentences. Chief prosecutor Alfredo Robledo was predictably jubilant: ‘We are very satisfied because we have dealt with a serious problem – that is, protecting a person – and that should always come above business freedom.’

In fact, the judgement was absurd. It was, remarked one commentator, the equivalent of prosecuting the postal service for delivering hate mail. There should also be no doubt about the censorious, illiberal implications of the ruling. Seeing as the sheer number of videos uploaded to video-sharing sites would make previewing them all an impossible task for all but the most hyperactive of censors, restrictions on what could be posted would have to be implemented. Social networking sites such as YouTube, Facebook, Bebo and so on would be subject to unprecedented regulation.

At stake here is people’s freedom to interact in the online world as they see fit, whether it’s to post videos of themselves, or indeed others, or to voice their opinions, no matter how offensive they might be. And it is this freedom that the Italian judge’s ruling would see scrutinised, regulated, and ultimately curtailed.

However, it’s not as if very many people agree with the judge or the prosecutors. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rarely can a judicial verdict have brought forth so many champions of liberty, or prompted so much high-flown rhetoric, filled with ‘principles’, ‘deep commitments’ and allusions to democracy. A Google spokesman declared: ‘This is an attack on the fundamental principles of liberty on which internet freedom is built.’

His view was echoed by America’s ambassador to Italy, David Throne: ‘This founding principle of internet freedom is vital for democracies which recognise freedom of expression and is safeguarded by all who take this value to heart… In all countries it is important to keep a careful eye out for abuse; nevertheless offensive material should not become an excuse to violate this fundamental right.’

There’s something a little bit too easy, almost over-eager, about the condemnation of the Italian ruling. While it is an undoubtedly absurd and illiberal ruling, it also makes the liberty-loving pose a little too easy to strike. In fact, everyone outside of the Italian judiciary, it seems, loves internet freedom. In the words of one newspaper editorial: ‘It’s hard to find anyone, save the prosecutor, who will defend [the] Italian judge’s decision.’

Such a uniformly critical reaction, where everyone from US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to the editor of PC World has come over all Thomas Paine, should raise the hackles of anyone who genuinely wants to defend freedom, whether online or off. It’s as if heaping scorn all too easily upon an Italian judge’s ridiculous verdict exonerates the rest of the Western world. We are led to believe that illiberal rulings, and irrational freedom-threatening legal precedents, spring only from irrational and illiberal countries like Italy, a place of corrupt politicians, Byzantine legal procedures and, of course, Machiavelli. Unfreedom is their problem, not ours in the US or the UK. Not wanting to miss out on the freedom-fighting, Britain’s Labour MP Tom Watson seized the chance to bash some autocratic foreigners: ‘This is the biggest threat to internet freedom we have seen in Europe. The only people who will support this decision are Silvio Berlusconi and the governments of China and Iran. It effectively breaks the internet in Italy.’

Ah yes, Tom Watson, a man so committed to liberty that, in 2001, he called upon the then home secretary David Blunkett to ban a Gary Glitter single. Glitter may have then just finished serving his jail time for possession of indecent images, but that wasn’t enough for Watson. So persuasive did he find Glitter’s music, so magical did he find the badly quiffed one’s lyrics, that he didn’t think the public ought to be exposed to it. ‘I am surprised that any record company would have anything to do with this man’, he declaimed. ‘We cannot have young children falling under his spell.’ That judgement says far more about Watson’s perception of the public, and our straight-out-of-the-Pied-Piper-of-Hamlin children, than it does about the ‘spell’ of Glitter’s pop.

Watson’s recourse to children, to the idea of the child – innocent, vulnerable, and to be protected – is not his own specific peccadillo, however. Rather it is the prevalent form of surreptitious regulation, especially online, widely practised in the West – yes, beyond Italy’s borders. In the name of the child, virtually any restriction of people’s freedom can be justified. As Brendan O’Neill pointed out on spiked, ‘For almost 150 years authoritarian governments have used children as a pretext for censorship, as a kind of “moral shield” – and that continues in the relentless effort to regulate the internet today.’

Indeed, earlier this month Nathalie Rothschild reported for spiked on the seventh annual Safer Internet Day which aimed to raise awareness of the threats, whether from perverts or from bullies, posed to children and young people online. Its message was clear: the internet is a place too risky to be navigated by people alone – they need external assistance and guidance. In line with this message, the UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre even teamed up with Microsoft to issue a customised version of Internet Explorer to help users of all ages to cope with the digital jungle.

While those outside of Italy may appear to be rushing to the barricades in defence of internet freedom, too often the US and British authorities have a far-from-liberal attitude towards people’s use of the internet. In fact, far from celebrating the freedoms afforded by the internet, that unpredictable online space is seen as threatening, as potentially dangerous, as in desperate need of control. And although overt forms of internet regulation, such as that practised in China or Iran, are rare in many Western countries, that does not mean that internet freedom is a principle close to our rulers’ hearts. Rather, they seek to regulate the internet through scaremongering, putting pressure on internet service providers to monitor their users’ habits (as demanded by Britain’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act), giving themselves the right to access our emails and surfing history (the RIP Act again), and by exaggerating the role played by social-networking websites in real-life crimes and misdemeanours, as if what we say and do online gives rise to real violence and mayhem.

Just as people’s everyday freedoms, from what we eat, drink and smoke, have become a source of concern for our isolated elites, so too have our actions online. We may not be threatened by Italian privacy laws, but that does not mean our freedom online is safe.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Sandy Starr explained why we need free speech online, even when we disapprove of the content. Martyn Perks said that, when it comes to online censorship in the name of child protection, the government is not considering the evidence. Nathalie Rothschild asked: ‘Who’s afraid of Facebook?’ spiked and O2 ran an online debate on Young people, mobiles and social networking. Or read more at spiked issue Free Speech.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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