“Three Google executives were convicted Wednesday of violating Italian privacy laws in a ruling that the company denounced as an ‘astonishing’ attack on freedom of expression on the Internet,” while a fourth executive was cleared, the New York Times reports. To recap: In September 2006, a video showing a disabled boy being harassed by classmates that was uploaded to Google Video’s Italian site. Google removed the video in November 2006 within 24 hours of a removal request being made. Last year, Italian authorities charged all four Google executives with defamation and three with failure to comply with Italian data privacy code.
The Google executives were found guilty of violating the Italian privacy code, but not of defamation. The three convicted are: Peter Fleischer, Google’s chief privacy counsel; David Drummond, senior vice president and chief legal officer; and George Reyes, a former chief financial officer. They could have faced a year in jail, but were given six-month suspended sentence. Senior product marketing manager Arvind Desikan faced only the defamation charge, so was cleared.
Richard Thomas, the United Kingdom’s former Information Commissioner, said the Italian court’s decision gave privacy laws a “bad name,” the BBC reports. “It is like prosecuting the post office for hate mail that is sent in the post … I find it worrying that the chief privacy officer who had nothing to do with the video has been found guilty. It is unrealistic to expect firms to monitor everything that goes online,” Thomas said.
In a posting on its official blog, Google said:
In essence this ruling means that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload. We will appeal this astonishing decision because the Google employees on trial had nothing to do with the video in question. […]
But we are deeply troubled by this conviction for another equally important reason. It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built. Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming. European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and support free speech while protecting personal privacy. If that principle is swept aside and sites like Blogger, YouTube and indeed every social network and any community bulletin board, are held responsible for vetting every single piece of content that is uploaded to them — every piece of text, every photo, every file, every video — then the Web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear.
These are important points of principle, which is why we and our employees will vigorously appeal this decision.
“I am outraged by the decision of the court of Milan today finding that I am criminally responsible for violating the privacy rights of an autistic school boy who was harassed and bullied by several of his classmates,” Drummond told Businessweek. “I am reviewing all available options to challenge this dangerous precedent.”
The Telegraph UK reports, “Google said that despite the controversial ruling, it would not be reconsidering its position in Italy, and would not be ceasing operations or shutting down YouTube.” It also reports:
The Italian courts have a record of pursuing technology companies for the misdemeanours of their users. Last year, Italy’s taxation regulators opened an investigation in to eBay, demanding that it hand over the details of customers who had sold goods through the auction site between 2004 and 2007. Yahoo! has also been asked by public prosecutors to surrender the private emails of suspected criminals, while Facebook was forced to hand over the personal information of users who were using the social-networking site to “glorify” Mafia figures, and promoting the violent death of Silvio Berlusconi.
The New York Times notes:
Google insists that under European Union law, video-sharing sites and other Internet companies are protected from liability for the content of material posted. But it is a gray area, according to legal experts.
The relevant E.U. law, which has been implemented in Italy, was adopted a decade ago, before user-generated content was the popular phenomenon it is today. While Internet service providers are clearly protected from so-called intermediate liability for the content they convey, the law does not specifically address user-generated content.