Although Google, Facebook and their rivals have enjoyed a relatively safe harbor from prosecution over user-generated content in the United States and Europe, they face a public that increasingly is more inclined to blame them for cyber-bullying and other online transgressions.
Such may have been the case when three Google executives were convicted in Milan, Italy on February 24 over a bullying video posted on the site -- a verdict greeted with horror by online activists, who fear it could open the gates to such prosecutions and ultimately destroy the Internet itself.
Journalist Jeff Jarvis suggested on his influential BuzzMachine blog that the Italian court, which found Google executives guilty of violating the privacy of an autistic boy who was taunted in the video, was essentially requiring websites to review everything posted on them.
The practical implication of that, of course, is that no one will let anyone put anything online because the risk is too great, Jarvis wrote. I wouldn't let you post anything here. My ISP (Internet Service Provider) wouldn't let me post anything on its services. And that kills the Internet.
A seemingly stunned Chris Thompson, writing for Slate, said simply: The mind reels at this medieval verdict.
'POLICEMEN OF THE INTERNET'
And Matt Sucherman, a Google vice president and general counsel, wrote in a blog post that the company was deeply troubled by the case, saying it attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built.
Legal experts have been more sanguine, saying the verdict in Milan will most likely end up an outlier -- unable to stand the scrutiny even of the Italian appeals courts, never mind setting legal precedents elsewhere.
But in sentencing the executives to six-month suspended jail terms, the court may have seized on a growing desire to hold Internet companies responsible for the content posted by users.
I actually think that this is probably not a watershed moment because the Google convictions violate European law and ultimately they will be overturned, said John Morris, general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology.
Having said that, yes we are quite worried about the trend in other countries to suggest Internet service providers and Web sites should be the policemen of the Internet, Morris said.
If the trend takes hold, it could put the companies on the defensive, forcing them to spend more time defending such cases or fending off calls to restrict content in some way.
China polices the web and demands cooperation from web companies, while the United States has stuck up for Internet freedom in the face of censorship by more repressive governments.
But social pressure often comes from the ground up, as Facebook recently found out in Australia.
In that case Facebook pages set up in tribute to two children murdered in February, 8-year-old Trinity Bates and 12-year-old Elliott Fletcher, were quickly covered with obscenities and pornography, prompting calls for the social network to be more accountable for its content.
To have these things happen to Facebook pages set up for the sole purpose of helping these communities pay tribute to young lives lost in the most horrible ways adds to the grief already being experienced, Queensland Premier Ann Bligh wrote to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a letter released to the Australian media.
THE 'MYSPACE SUICIDE'
I seek your advice about whether Facebook can do anything to prevent a recurrence of these types of sickening incidents, Bligh said in the letter.
A Facebook spokeswoman responded that the popular social network, which has more than 400 million users worldwide, had rules to check content and that any reports of hate or threats would be quickly removed.
Facebook is highly self-regulating and users can and do report content that they find questionable or offensive, the spokeswoman, Debbie Frost, said.
Calls for prosecution of cyber-bullying first reached a peak with the case of a suburban mother accused of driving a love-lorn 13-year-old girl, Megan Meier, to suicide in 2006 by tormenting her with a fake MySpace persona.
Lori Drew, the mother of a girl with whom Meir had quarreled, was found guilty of misdemeanor federal charges in a case dubbed the MySpace Suicide in the U.S. media, but a judge later dismissed her conviction on the grounds that the prosecution was selective the law unconstitutionally vague.
But Meier's death and a series of child exploitation cases linked to News Corp's MySpace brought pressure on the site to increase its security measures and may have cost it in its apparently losing rivalry with Facebook for social network dominance.
Such issues point to the business risks for the likes of Google and Facebook as they seek to reconcile demands for accountability with the impossibility of monitoring everything posted on their sites.
We are a society that expects companies and people of authority to take responsibility, not only for their own actions but for the actions of those beneath them, said Karen North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California.
The difficulty is, we've created an Internet culture where people are invited to put up content, but the responsibility falls in both directions, North said. (On the Internet) we all share the responsibility to monitor the content that we find and for our societal standards to be maintained.
(Editing by Peter Henderson and Cynthia Osterman)