Could Facebook be held liable for an Italian teen’s suicide? If an Italian prosecutor has his way, the social networking giant could face criminal manslaughter charges.
Carolina Picchio was a 14-year-old girl from Novara, Italy, near Milan, with an enviably pretty face and a bright future. Then, late on the night of January 4, she jumped out of her bedroom window from her family’s fourth-floor apartment. She died instantly when she landed headfirst on the pavement below. Before she jumped, she updated her status on Facebook with a chilling suicide note: “Forgive me if I’m not strong. I cannot take it any longer.”
In her bedroom, police found a note to her ex-boyfriend, whose friends had been circulating a suggestive video of her, taken at a drinking party, in which she appeared tipsy and disheveled. The boys had also been sending her nasty text messages and cyberbullying her on Facebook with insults and threats. On the day she took her life, she had received 2,600 vulgar messages through Whatsapp. “Haven’t you done enough to me already?” she wrote in the letter to her former boyfriend. “How many times do I have to pay?”
Over the weekend, the tables turned when Valentina Sellaroli, an investigating prosecutor in Novara, announced they would press criminal charges against the eight boys who were “making Picchio pay.” The teens, between the ages of 13 and 17, included Picchio’s ex. They are being investigated for instigating suicide and distributing pedopornography on the Internet. Francesco Saluzzo, another investigating prosecutor working on the case, said they were also opening an investigation into whether or not Facebook could be held criminally responsible in the young girl’s tragic death. “Facebook has not been officially named,” Saluzzo told The Daily Beast. “But we are looking into whether employees of the company failed to remove offending messages that could have led to Picchio’s decision to take her life.”
Italy has a precedent with prosecuting Internet crimes. In 2010, three Google Italia executives were given suspended jail terms for failing to remove a video of a group of adolescents bullying a handicapped boy that had been posted in 2006. The family had tried to follow procedures set forth by Google to remove offending videos, to no avail—which allowed the prosecutor in the case to successfully argue that the Google execs had ignored their complaints and thus were criminally liable for action.
Saluzzo is now investigating whether Picchio followed similar procedures with Facebook to have the social networking giant remove the offending videos her nemesis posted. Her friends have testified that they also complained to Facebook in an attempt to remove the offending material in support of Picchio. Facebook would not comment on the record for this article, but on Tuesday, Facebook executive Marne Levine posted a notice that the company would be revising its policies on hate-speech removal. “We will increase the accountability of the creators of content that does not qualify as actionable hate speech but is cruel or insensitive by insisting that the authors stand behind the content they create,” Levine wrote in the post.
Facebook’s resolve to try harder to protect users comes too late for Picchio’s family, but it could serve to prevent similar dramatic actions in the future. This could be especially important in Italy, where cyberbullying has grown at an alarming rate in the last year. According to Italy’s postal police, who investigate Internet crimes, there have been 54 criminal complaints related to cyberbullying so far in 2013, compared with 30 such formal complaints in all of 2012. Part of the increase could be due to the fact that more people are using social-networking sites, but a push to eradicate physical bullying in Italian schools more likely has pushed the practice underground. More than a quarter of all Italian students say they have been sent offending messages or threats via social-networking avenues like Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp. Others regularly find doctored or incriminating videos taken with hidden cameras on YouTube. Italian teachers are also increasingly victims of cyberbullying campaigns, as are Italian politicians.
Italy’s parents’ association, known as Moige, has begun a campaign to try to involve parents in their children’s online activities. According to a recent survey by Open Eyes observatory on Internet safety, almost 90 percent of Italian adolescents regularly use Facebook, even though the parents of more than a third of the users have never looked at their children’s profile pages. Moige is trying to educate parents about the importance of Internet supervision, but they have also launched an official complaint against Facebook in the name of Picchio to try to make the company help protect the children. “It is bad that a corporation like Facebook does not carry a watch on virtual places, which seem to have become the preferred means of pedophiles and bullies,” the Moige’s president Maria Rita Munizzi wrote on the organization’s website. “We are angry and worried about the silence and indifference shown by those who manage these powerful means of communication, who continue to function without an adequate policy to protect minors."