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Italy's Google verdict won't stop hate speech

By Christopher Wolf, Special to CNN
  • Chirstopher Wolf says Google execs convicted in Italy after bullying video posted
  • Free speech protections prevent such verdicts in U.S., have let Internet thrive, he says
  • Wolf: Firms would have to restrict Internet use if Italian case were to become legal norm
  • Enforcement of speech codes hasn't stopped hatemongers from posting online, Wolf says

Editor's note: Christopher Wolf is a lawyer specializing in privacy and Internet law at Hogan & Hartson and is chair of the Internet Task Force of the Anti-Defamation League.

Washington (CNN) -- The Internet is awash with hate. It is the favorite tool of racists, anti-Semites, homophobes and other bigots. They host Web sites, upload videos and post comments intended to propagate the lies of prejudice, to recruit like-minded haters, to mislead children and to hurt minorities.

Online culture has made it acceptable for even "nice people" to do hateful things, which is why we have an epidemic of cyber-bullying. And the platforms of Google, an Internet giant, serve as a major transport vehicle for hate speech of all kinds.

But does that mean that Google executives deserve a jail sentence for what online haters post through its services? Absolutely not.

Unfortunately, an Italian judge found otherwise last week and has convicted three Google executives for violating Italy's privacy code. The offense? A misguided user of a Google video service -- a predecessor to YouTube -- uploaded a video showing the bullying of a disabled youth. When Google received a formal complaint about the video from Italian police, it took the video down within hours.

But the judge in Milan found that under Italian law Google had a legal duty to prevent the posting of the video that invaded the victim's privacy and dignity, and he imposed a suspended jail sentence and fines on them and their company. (Google plans to appeal.)

Such a conviction is unimaginable in the United States. The First Amendment prevents the criminalization of even the most repugnant speech, except in very limited circumstances. Moreover, early in the Internet era, Congress passed a law immunizing Web companies for the content posted by third parties (other than copyrighted material). That law has allowed blogs and video uploads to flourish, empowering individuals to become publishers.

It is fair to say that the culture of free speech in the United States has allowed the Internet to become the powerful tool of communication, education and entertainment that it is today.

If legal constraints such as the Italian prosecution of Google become the online norm, companies will be forced to restrict how people use the tools of the Internet. The threat of liability, not just fines but jail time, will create too much risk. And the Internet will be the poorer for it. Moreover, it may be technologically impossible to monitor and filter the thousands of videos posted to YouTube every hour.

At the same time, hatemongers will find a way to stay online while ordinary users are thwarted. Time after time, we have seen how the enforcement of speech codes in Europe against hate sites has resulted in the temporary take-down of offending content -- and its subsequent reappearance from hosting sites in the United States.

But that does not mean we should throw up our hands and simply accept online hate as something that will always infect the Internet. There is a role for Internet users, for Internet companies and for educators. We should speak up when we see hate sites, explain to our kids what they are seeing and counter the vicious lies.

Those offering Internet services with terms of use that prohibit hate speech should enforce those terms and remove offending content. That is exactly what Google did in the Italian case. The same U.S. law that provides Internet companies with immunity from liability for the posting of third-party content allows those companies to edit and remove offensive speech -- even speech that might have First Amendment protection but which the company deems to be repugnant because it is hate-filled.

It is also time for Internet education to be required in all schools, to teach kids how to filter what they are seeing and to reject hate online. The epidemic of cyber-bullying alone should inspire such attention to kids' use of the Internet.

The Italian conviction in the Google case may have a silver lining: It has shined attention on the often overlooked problem of hate on the Internet and spurred those of us concerned with how the Internet evolves to work even harder to fight the scourge of online hate speech.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher Wolf.