Who Put the "World" in "World Wide Web," Anyway?

(And was it the same person who put the bomp in the bomp-a-bomp-a-bomp?)

Back in May, Eric Robinson explained why it's always a good idea to know your audience before setting pen to paper. But in the networked online world, how do you determine who your audience is?

As Jonathan Zittrain has noted, the history of the Internet is riddled with examples of content gone viral, spreading to the four corners of the Internet in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, international humiliation is not the only risk when the Internet's eyes all turn towards you.

Most online publishers welcome the idea of having their content viewed by millions of people around the world. After all, if a post goes up on the Internet but nobody reads it, does it make a sound? Yet more than one American company has had occasion to lament the "world" in the "world wide web."

Yahoo! first learned the hard lesson in international relations back during the Jurassic Period of the Internet, when a French court handed down a ruling requiring Yahoo! to block the sale of Nazi memorabilia to French citizens through its US website. The Ninth Circuit later rebuffed an attempt by Yahoo! to insulate itself from the French ruling by invoking the First Amendment. More recently, Yahoo! was fined by a court in Belgium for failing to turn over user records in response to a Belgian prosecutor's request.

Dow Jones similarly felt the wrath of the international legal gods when the Australian high court held that Dow Jones could be sued for defamation in Australia over comments reproduced in the online version of an American magazine. This outcome has been repeated in Canadian and British courts, prompting recent legislation in the US against so-called "libel tourism."

The latest company to find itself on the wrong side of a foreign legal system is Google. In a disturbing twist, four of Google's executives are facing criminal prosecution in Italy over the distribution on YouTube of a video depicting Italian schoolboys taunting a boy with Downs Syndrome. Google has sought to invoke the European Union's equivalent of Section 230, claiming that as an Internet service provider it is not liable for the content posted by users.  The Italian prosecutor has rejected this defense, claiming that Google is instead a content provider and thus subject to punishment under the Italian penal code. 

Many companies that do business on the Internet will be closely watching the outcome of the Google trial, which is scheduled to resume in September.  Regardless of the outcome, the case is likely to prompt more calls for an international solution to the quandary of conflicting national norms on the Internet. (I'm stocking up on popcorn to watch as the calls for "transnational constitutionalism" cause Scalia's head to explode.) New World Order, anyone?

UPDATE:  The Italian court has convicted three of the Google executives (senior vice president and chief legal officer David Drummond, chief privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, and former chief financial officer George Reyes) on a charge of violation of the country's privacy code.  A fourth Google executive, marketing executive Arvind Desikan, was found not guilty on the privacy charge.  All four executives were found not guilty of criminal defamation.