The New York Times discusses the Google privacy case in Italy and the differences it highlights in how the United States and European nations view privacy rights. Recap: In September 2006, a video showing a disabled boy being harassed by classmates that was uploaded to Google Video’s Italian site. Google removed the video in November 2006 within 24 hours of a removal request being made. Prosecutors charged Google executives with defamation and violating the country’s privacy code. Last week, an Italian court found three Google executives guilty of violating the country’s privacy code and sentenced them to six-month suspended jail terms. Google is appealing.
In one sense, the ruling was a nice discussion starter about how much responsibility to place on services like Google for offensive content that they passively distribute.
But in a deeper sense, it called attention to the profound European commitment to privacy, one that threatens the American conception of free expression and could restrict the flow of information on the Internet to everyone. [...]
“The framework in Europe is of privacy as a human-dignity right,” said Nicole Wong, a lawyer with the company. “As enforced in the U.S., it’s a consumer-protection right.”
But Ms. Wong said Google’s policies on invasion of privacy, like its policies on hate speech, pornography and extreme violence, were best applied uniformly around the world. Trying to meet all the differing local standards “will make you tear your hair out and be paralyzed.” [...]
[Italian] Judge Oscar Magi’s ruling, in effect, balanced privacy against free speech and ruled in favor of the former. And given the borderless quality of the Internet, that balance has the potential to affect nations that prefer to tilt toward the values protected by the First Amendment. [...]
Americans like privacy, too, but they think about it in a different way, as an aspect of liberty and a protection against government overreaching, particularly into the home. Continental privacy protections, by contrast, focus on protecting people from having their lives exposed to public view, especially in the mass media.
The title of a Yale Law Journal article by James Q. Whitman captured the tension: “The Two Western Cultures of Privacy: Dignity Versus Liberty.” [...]
The Italian prosecution would be unimaginable in America. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 leaves online companies free of liability for transmitting most kinds of unlawful material supplied by others. Prosecutions for truthful speech on matters of public interest are almost certainly barred by the First Amendment.
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