Internet Freedom A Relative Concept When an Italian court convicted Google executives Wednesday of violating privacy laws, it held them responsible for a user-generated video showing the bullying of a child. Now, many companies and content providers say there's a bigger trend at work: Widely diverging privacy laws are making the Internet less global than once imagined.
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Internet Freedom A Relative Concept

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Internet Freedom A Relative Concept

Internet Freedom A Relative Concept

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Some Internet companies are in shock after yesterday's ruling by an Italian court. Google executives were held responsible for a video on a Google site showing a boy being bullied. Web providers called the court's decision an assault on freedom.

But NPR's Martin Kaste reports that even before the Italian case, freedom on the Internet has meant different things depending on where you live.

MARTIN KASTE: Google has framed this ruling as potentially disastrous. Spokesman Bill Echikson says expecting Web sites to vet everything that gets uploaded will be a threat to creativity on the Internet.

Mr. BILL ECHIKSON (Spokesman, Google): It would mean the Web as we know it wouldn't exist.

KASTE: The thing is, the Web as we know it doesn't really exist now, at least not in any one universal form. Things were more universal back in the 1990s when Web sites, especially, were designed to be worldwide.

Mr. JONATHAN ZITTRAIN (Co-director, Berkman Center for Internet and Society): It's supposed to be uniform. One link consistently is supposed to point to a particular destination.

KASTE: Jonathan Zittrain is co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He points out that Web site addresses are called URLs, Uniform Resource Locators, but that that's turning into a misnomer.

Mr. ZITTRAIN: More and more, what we see are that depending where you are, one jurisdiction versus another - Canada versus the U.S., the U.S. versus Thailand - that Uniform Resource Locator isn't so uniform anymore.

KASTE: Your computer's IP address, the numeric code that shows where you are, directly affects what you get to look at. Brazilians can't watch Hulu; Americans can't watch the BBC. Usually, this is done for commercial reasons: the Web site may have rights to show the movies only in certain countries. But sometimes, this regionalization also happens because of government pressure.

Mr. ZITTRAIN: We've seen an increasing ability to have a local Internet that could conform to local law.

KASTE: China is the obvious example, but companies like Google have also restricted access to their sites in other countries, for instance in Thailand, where YouTube agreed to block locals from seeing certain videos that the government found insulting to the king.

And then there's Europe, which has more restrictive privacy laws than the U.S. The Italian case, for example, was based on the fact that the kid being bullied in that video hadn't consented to having the video posted.

Mr. TREVOR HUGHES (Executive Director, International Association of Privacy Professionals): There are likely thousands of privacy laws that can affect any one piece of data.

KASTE: Trevor Hughes is head of the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Those are the people who work at companies like Google trying to keep their Web sites compliant with all the different privacy laws around the globe. But sometimes, he says, it's just not possible for a single Web site to satisfy every country.

Mr. HUGHES: While the Internet is indeed a global platform, we certainly see organizations that cannot find the lowest common denominator with regards to compliance, or perhaps it's a highest common denominator, and as a result need to segment their offerings significantly.

KASTE: This segmentation of the Internet comes as a disappointment to some of the American idealists who'd hoped that the Internet would become a global free speech zone that would trump local authorities. But those idealists sometimes also forget that freedom can mean very different things in different places. Jonathan Zittrain quotes an aphorism that's familiar to many Internet law experts.

Mr. ZITTRAIN: In cyberspace, the First Amendment is a local ordinance and it doesn't protect you anywhere else.

KASTE: As the laws and customs of other countries weigh more heavily on the policies of companies like Google, Americans who are fond of their own concepts of freedom may someday be glad that the Internet isn't quite as universal as it used to be. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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