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Google Under Fire

The Bits blog over at the NYT picked up this story of pending legal action against several senior Google executives in Italy. At stake is whether Google is responsible for having allowed users to upload a video of several bullies making fun of a boy with Downs syndrome. From this, you might be thinking that Google refused to take the video down when asked, but that is not the case. In fact, as soon as the video was flagged as inappropriate, Google removed the video. The accusation goes much deeper in asserting that Google should have pre-screened and eliminated the video before it hit the web.

In my opinion, this is not only expecting too much of a company whose site Google Video, combined with its independent subsidiary, YouTube, hosts millions of videos uploaded by users. This quote from the YouTube factsheet should help clarify its immensity:

People are watching hundreds of millions of videos a day on YouTube and uploading hundreds of thousands of videos daily. In fact, every minute, ten hours of video is uploaded to YouTube.

It would be impossible for Google to pre-screen even a fraction of those clips. A while back, in my article “How Google Decides,” I talked about how even the current method of reviewing flagged videos for legality may ultimately prove woefully inadequate.

What this case against Google really amounts to is an attack on Web 2.0 technology. In the case of the bullied boy, his privacy and protection from further, potentially global ridicule, must be weighed against the powerful information sharing capabilities of a site like YouTube. To shutter all of YouTube because one user briefly jeopardizes someone else’s privacy without permission is itself an act of bullying, one which threatens the thousands of users who lawfully make use of the site.

Don’t get me wrong, poking fun of a boy with Downs syndrome and then publicizing it is heinous and awful. Only a more reasonable response is not to demand that Google rigorously police the marketplace (it cannot do so), but to rely on a combination of collective self-governing (flagging inappropriate clips) and traditional criminal investigations into the people who post immoral, hateful or illegal content. This preserves the vibrant and rich connectivity of Web 2.0 sites without give a free pass to bullies and perverts. As the Google execs remarked in their public statement:

We are pleased that as a result of our cooperation the bullies in the video have been identified and punished.

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