A friend (now at Google) responds

  last edited: Fri, 02 Nov 2007 15:28:17 +1100  from Diary and Other Rantings
A friend (now at Google) responds:

"Mike, obviously I cannot talk about Google internals, but what did we do about content violations at AOL?"

Uhm, nothing.


OK, this isn't entirely true. There was that big flap with the EU over their different definition of the age at which a child is subject to parental controls. And then we spent weeks coming up with a solution to the problem of what should happen to group content if a group founder/moderator leaves the online service.

But mostly, content issues weren't our problem as software designers/engineers. The recently passed (at the time) DMCA had a "Safe Harbour" provision - which basically states that a service cannot be liable for infringement by its members if notified of content offenses and takes the offending content down/offline in a reasonable amount of time. Ultimately, this was our solution to any legal issues that might arise. We left it to the legal team to sort out what was or wasn't illegal content, and provided tools to operations staff to actually remove the infringing material.
The important thing to take away from this is that the safe harbour provisions only protect a service providor from liability for infringement. It shifts this burden completely to the members themselves. If one takes Google Reader as an example, if the republication of a particular newsfeed is found to be unlawful, every member who viewed that newsfeed on the system is potentially liable, because their actions (collectively) allowed an unauthorized copy of copyrighted material to be made. In copyright law, computers do not make copies. People make copies. Google does not make copies of newsfeeds. Members make copies, through their actions of subscribing to and reading the feed - and even if they aren't aware that by performing a seemingly innocuous action as reading a published newsfeed an unlicensed copy is in fact being made on Google's server. This is important to know - for anybody who uses any online service anywhere. You will not likely see any warning that simply clicking this button or filling in this form field with a newsfeed URL could subject you to a nasty lawsuit.  

The take-down provisions of the DMCA usually end the matter. But they don't remove the liability of the member or members who violated the copyright. It could still end up in the courthouse. All it means is that the service providor won't be there.