Leading article: Not the way to police the web's Wild West

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In some ways, the internet has been like another Pandora's Box which has unleashed new furies on the world, from online child pornography rings to cyber bullying. The case of four students in Italy who filmed themselves victimising an autistic child and posted their taunts online is the latest example of the ways in which the web facilitates cruelty.

Human vindictiveness and depravity are nothing new, of course. The difference is that now this kind of vile behaviour can be shared among millions with a video phone, an internet connection and a few mouse clicks.

The question is: how should the authorities respond? An Italian court has come up with one answer by imposing a suspended jail sentence on three Google executives, on to whose site the clip was uploaded. Alas, this is unlikely to be a practical solution.

One might sympathise with the judgment of Judge Oscar Magi. By holding the most powerful player in the internet to account in this fashion, the court has sent an electrifying message to all websites that they need to be careful about what they allow to be posted; that grossly cruel or nakedly defamatory material will not be tolerated.

But if website hosts are going to be held legally responsible for everything that goes up online, the danger is that they will begin censoring text, images, videos, indeed every kind of contribution from the public, on the precautionary principle. That would be a deeply regressive curb on the freedom of the web.

Those who argue that the internet will always be like the Wild West, with no standards of conduct or decency, are being too pessimistic. Powerful web hosts can – and should – do more to make their sites civilised spaces. But threatening the employees of such organisations with jail is no way to advance this cause.

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