More Crazy Internet Jurisdictional Stuff:

In a kind of reprise of the well-known Yahoo! case (involving a French lawsuit against Yahoo! for displaying Nazi memorabilia on its auction website in violation of French law) from a several years ago, four Google executives are facing criminal charges in an Italian court arising out of a third-party posting of a video at a Google site:

The Italian case relates to a three-minute movie uploaded to Google Video's Italian site in 2006. In the video, four teenagers from the Northern city of Turin are seen teasing a boy with Down syndrome. After Google received two complaints about the content, the company says it removed the clip within 24 hours. But Italian officials, who didn't return calls for this article, argue the video should never have been allowed to be uploaded in the first place.

Google concedes the content caused offense. In a statement the company says: "As we have repeatedly made clear, our hearts go out to the victim and his family. We are pleased that as a result of our cooperation the bullies in the video have been identified and punished."

There's a great deal one can say about this — indeed, one might even say you could write a whole book about it! At one level, it illustrates an interesting and important difference in substantive law: US law, through sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act (oddly enough), provides intermediaries (like Google here) a very broad immunity from liability for third-party-provided content, while Italian law (I take it, not knowing much about Italian law) does not. It's an important difference, because it reflects (presumably) a real difference of opinion, and of values, and of policy.

The hard question is: how can we realize the benefits of a truly global communications medium like the Net — the first truly global medium we've ever come up with, and whose promise is unimaginably immense — while different sovereigns impose their different visions of the good onto network traffic? We do not have a good answer for that, at the moment. The conventional wisdom here leads to results that are absurd: to summarize (see chapter 11 of the book for more detail): Italy can legitimately assert jurisdiction over Google if Google's conduct is having "significant effects" within Italy, and Google has tangible assets (machines, offices, typewriters, servers) that are located in Italy (or executives who might set foot someday on Italian soil). Viewed from Google's perspective, and the question "With what law does Google have an obligation to comply?", the conventional wisdom says that Google has the obligation to comply with the law of all sovereigns within whose territory it has tangible assets, or where its executives might travel. In my book, I call this "Jurisdictional Whack-a-Mole."

"If you (or your assets) pop up in Singapore, . . . Wham!! Singaporean law can be -- can legitimately be -- applied to you. Your daughter's junior high school newsletter, once posted on the Web, is subject to Malaysian, and Mexican, and Latvian law, simultaneously, because it may be having "significant effects" in one (or all) of those countries, and . . . the school's obligation to comply with those laws is defined by the likelihood that it has assets in any one of them, or that any of its officers might travel to any of them.

That's a strange kind of law -- law that only gets revealed to the interacting parties ex post, and which can therefore no longer guide the behavior of those subject to it in any meaningful way.

This is a really hard problem, and it is one that we need to solve. If I had a simple solution that I could summarize in a brief blog posting, I would do so — and I would not have felt the need to write a whole book about it. I'm hoping the book's website becomes a focus for some discussion about all this, because I'm pretty certain that we could use more discussion about it.

[with thanks to Paul B. Simon for passing along the links


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