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Italy Convicts Three Google Execs for Violating Privacy Laws

Italy Convicts Three Google Execs for Violating Privacy Laws

Google's Peter Fleischer Photo:

Jason Mick

On Wednesday an Italian judge delivered a stunning verdict in a long standing case against Google.  The ruling sentenced three top Google executives – David Drummond, senior vice president and chief legal officer; George Reyes, former chief financial officer; and Peter Fleischer, chief privacy counsel – to a prison sentence of six months for violating privacy laws.  A fourth employee, marketing executive Arvind Desikan, was found not guilty.

In Italy, laws mandate that sentences under three years are commuted for those without a criminal record, so the Google executives won’t be expected to serve any prison time.

Despite the fact that the verdicts is largely a symbolic gesture, it represents a serious threat to the current way the internet is structured.  To understand this, you must explore the case first.

Google describes the incident that started the case, writing, “In late 2006, students at a school in Turin, Italy filmed and then uploaded a video to  Google Video  that showed them bullying an autistic schoolmate.”

Vivi Down Association, an advocacy group for people with Downs syndrome, complained about the video a couple months later to Italian authorities.  Google went out of its way to try to cooperate with them.  It took down the video immediately.  It also helped identify the female who uploaded the video. According to Google, “she was subsequently sentenced to 10 months community service by a court in Turin, as were several other classmates who were also involved.”

Despite that cooperation, Italian prosecutors decided to take the bizarre step of next charging a handful of Google executives for “allowing” the video to be uploaded.  The selection was truly strange — none of the international Google employees charged were involved in the incident in any way; and most didn’t even work with Google Video.  About the only thing they had in common was that they were all international employees, who had worked overseas, including some time in Italy.

The four employees were charged for “criminal defamation and a failure to comply with the Italian privacy code”.  And today, while they were found not guilty of the criminal defamation charges, three of the four were found guilty of violating the privacy code.

The stunning verdict sets an alarming precedent.  The decision, if upheld, threatens the freedom of having blogs, video sharing sites, internet hosting, Wiki pages, news sites with comments sections and virtually any other kind of user generated or user interactive content, for fear of criminal prosecution if users misbehave.

Google perhaps summarizes it best, writing:

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.

The decision is being appealed.  However, Google faces a tough battle.  Anti-Google sentiment in the European Union is quite high right now.  Google is currently  under investigation for possible antitrust violations.  It also is being sued by an Italy’s Mediaset SpA, a television company controlled by Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.  Mediaset claims Google broke the law by allowing infringing clips from one of its TV shows to be uploaded to YouTube.

_© 2009, DailyTech