Internet companies have been expressing their shock at Wednesday's ruling by a court in Italy that held a group of Google executives responsible for a video posted on its Web site. The industry says it's impossible for a company like Google to vet every single video users upload, and they say the ruling threatens Internet freedom.
But many of those same companies have already bowed to local laws elsewhere in the world, and Internet freedom depends on where you live.
Google has framed this ruling as potentially disastrous. Spokesman Bill Echikson says it's a threat to creativity on the Internet.
"It would mean the Web as we know it wouldn't exist," he says.
'It's Supposed To Be Uniform!'
The thing is, the Web as we know it doesn't exist — at least, not in any one, universal form. There used to be a single Internet — Web sites, especially, were designed to be "worldwide."
"It's supposed to be uniform!" says Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "One link consistently is supposed to point to a particular destination!"
It was called the World Wide Web for a reason, and Web addresses are URLs — that is, Uniform Resource Locators. But that's turning into a misnomer.
"More and more, what we see is that depending where you are, one jurisdiction vs. another — Canada vs. the U.S., the U.S. vs. Thailand — that Uniform Resource Locator isn't so uniform anymore," Zittrain says.
Commercial, Government Interests Intervene
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 only has rights to show movies in certain countries. But sometimes, this regionalization happens because of government pressure.
"We've seen an increasing ability to have a local Internet that can conform to local law," Zittrain says.
China is the obvious example, but companies like Google have also restricted access to their sites in other countries, too. For instance, in Thailand, YouTube — which is owned by Google — agreed to block locals from seeing certain videos insulting their king.
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 teenager being bullied in the video hadn't consented to having the video posted.
"There are likely thousands of privacy laws that can affect any one piece of data," says Trevor Hughes, head of the International Association of Privacy Professionals. People who work for companies like Google to try to comply with the wide array of privacy laws around the globe.
Pleasing Everyone Not An Option
But sometimes it's just not possible for a single Web site to satisfy every country.
"While the Internet is indeed a global platform," Hughes says, "we certainly see organizations that cannot find the lowest common denominator with regards to compliance. Or perhaps it's the highest common denominator. And as a result, they need to segment their offerings significantly."
This "segmentation" of the Internet comes as a disappointment to some of the American idealists who'd hoped the Internet would become a global free-speech zone that trumps local authority. But those idealists sometimes forget that freedom can mean very different things in different places.
Zittrain quotes a familiar aphorism among Internet law experts.
"In cyberspace, the First Amendment is just a local ordinance, and it doesn't protect you anywhere else," he says.
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 be glad someday that the Internet isn't as universal as it used to be.