Can Google Secure a Safe Haven for BitTorrent Sites?

When the operators of The Pirate Bay were sentenced to prison last year Google quickly distanced itself from the site. Nearly a year later, three of Google's employees have just received suspended jail sentences in Italy for failing to prevent a video from being uploaded to Google Video, placing them in a similar position as most torrent site admins.

googleMuch like Google, The Pirate Bay and isoHunt are search engines that aim to index information posted on the Internet and make it findable to their users.

Google’s YouTube shows even more similarities to torrent sites as it allows users to submit content, with the only difference being that YouTube actually hosts the uploaded files whereas torrent sites only link to content indirectly through .torrent files.

In the last year, three of the largest torrent sites – The Pirate Bay, Mininova and isoHunt – were all taken to court by copyright holders for assisting in copyright infringement, and all three sites lost their cases to some degree. Strangely enough Google has never said a word about these cases other than to distance themselves from The Pirate Bay team after they were sentenced.

Despite this attempt at demarcation, three Google employees are now in a very similar position as the aforementioned torrent site operators. An Italian court just handed out suspended jail sentences to three Google employees for ‘allowing’ users to upload a video that invaded the privacy of a third person.

The three employees were not aware of the upload before they were notified by the police, but they made it possible, much like they make it possible to upload copyrighted content. The similarities with torrent search engines are striking.

It is needless to say that Google is not amused by the court ruling. While the company kept its mouth shut in response to the legal actions surrounding the torrent search engines, they now speak of an attack on “the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built.”

“Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming,” Google’s Matt Sucherman wrote in a blog post yesterday.

This response from Google does indeed seem logical, and we can easily apply the same reasoning to sites that index and host .torrent files. The operators of torrent sites and video sites can’t possibly verify and screen the content of all uploaded files. This is something the site’s users should be held accountable for.

This doesn’t mean of course that the site’s operators should ignore the law. The Pirate Bay for example has always been very responsive to requests from the police concerning illegal material linked to by the site. IsoHunt goes even further as it actively works together with copyright holders and Mininova even allowed copyright holders to prevent infringing torrents from being re-uploaded in the future.

According to Google such policies should be good enough to operate a site like YouTube without running into legal trouble.

“European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and support free speech while protecting personal privacy,” Sucherman writes.

So here we have Google in a similar position as most torrent sites are in. Although the Italian verdict is outrageous the obvious upside is that unlike the torrent sites, Google has the financial power to successfully fight the verdict. According to former Pirate Bay spokesman Peter Sunde, Google got what it deserved.

“It’s good that someone takes on Google for a change. Let them take the heat for once – and let them make sure that other sites that they’ve previously had no problem filtering, that basically do the same as them, don’t end up in this shit the next time,” Sunde told TorrentFreak.

“I think it’s good that time has finally caught up Google. Maybe now we have a level playing field here. They have to take the fight as well. Previously they only said nice things about how important the Internet was, and then ignored all of the things going on. Even supporting them – China for instance,” he added.

“A big player like Google has the financial muscles to fight this thing. And we all know that Italy is just full of rules made by Berlusconi, for Berlusconi,” Sunde said, adding, “That fascist needs to go.”

Google has indeed committed itself, and said it “will vigorously appeal this decision.” The whole case revolves around the question of whether or not the operators of media portals and search engines should be held accountable for the actions of their users.

In recent months Italian courts have clearly answered positively to this question. They have opened the door for a nationwide block of file-sharing sites and with yesterday’s decision file and video hosting sites are not safe any longer either. So the next question is, can Google secure a safe haven for torrent sites?

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