Google’s Neutrality Stance Tested Yet Again In Brazil

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The arrest of the president of Google’s operations in Brazil is the latest in a string of court decisions to test the neutrality stance of the search giant. Since its beginnings, Google has seen itself as an internet middleman, insisting that it should not be held legally liable for any defamatory or infringing content posted by its users.

Media reports, quoting mostly the Brazilian news site G1, tell that police arrested Google Brazil head Fabio Jose Silva Coelho on 27 September over his refusal to remove two videos on Google’s YouTube that allegedly slander, insult and defame a candidate in Campo Grande, a town in Brazil. An electoral court earlier held that Silva Coelho committed a crime of disobedience following his refusal to take down the videos.

A police statement was quoted as saying that Coelho was briefly detained as the offence he allegedly committed has “a low potential to offend.” He signed a document agreeing that he would show up before the authorities when summoned. Google is yet to issue an official statement on this, but it is expected that it will make an appeal and a court hearing will follow.

This is not the first time that Google officials have been either arrested or slapped with charges for the defamatory videos or other content that were earlier made available by its users on the internet. Or worse, as a result of the pervasive nature of the internet, even Google officials who reside or work in the company’s headquarters in the United States have found themselves being pursued by local courts and authorities outside the US – a case of jurisdictional dilemma in the age of the internet.

In 2008, Google Chief Privacy Officer Peter Fleischer, after arriving in Milan, Italy to give a speech, was welcomed by authorities with an arrest warrant for criminal defamation and invasion of privacy over a video of an autistic boy being bullied by classmates. The video stayed on Google’s video channel YouTube for two months until it was taken down only after it received a complaint from an advocacy group. But the Italian court argued that although the video was removed from the site, Google was not fast enough and was negligent for not taking it down more quickly.

In 2010, a court in Paris convicted Google’s Chief Executive Eric Schmidt of defamation over a complaint from a plaintiff whose name upon searching on Google resulted in suggestions of “rapist” and “satanist.”

In asserting its neutrality stance, Google has likened its role to that of a telephone company which is not liable for the use of the service for criminal activities. It also limits its role to following the notice-and-takedown rule which removes liability from intermediaries provided they take down the reported defamatory or infringing materials.

“…[I]t’s a fundamental principle of the Internet that you don’t blame the neutral intermediaries for the actions of their customers. Rather, the standard recognized worldwide is that Internet intermediaries are responsible to take action when they are put on notice of unlawful content through proper legal channels,” read a 2007 post on Google’s public policy blog.

The immunity of intermediaries on the internet is still a work in progress as rules vary from one jurisdiction to another. At least in the US, there is the statutory immunity provision for intermediaries referred to as Section 230 (codified in 47 U.S.C. Section 230) which states in section

230(c)(1) that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Maricel Estavillo may be reached at

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