By Reuters, February 24, 2010
MILAN (Reuters) — A Milan court convicted three Google executives on Wednesday for violating the privacy of an Italian boy with Down syndrome by letting a video of him being bullied be posted on the site in 2006.
Google will appeal the six-month suspended jail terms and said the verdict ‘poses a crucial question for the freedom on which the internet is built,’ since none of the three employees found guilty had anything to do with the offending video.
‘They didn’t upload it, they didn’t film it, they didn’t review it and yet they have been found guilty,’ said Google’s senior communications manager, Bill Echikson, in Milan.
The court convicted senior vice-president and chief legal officer David Drummond, former Google Italy board member George De Los Reyes and global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer. Senior product marketing manager Arvind Desikan was acquitted.
The executives, none of whom are based in Italy, do not face actual imprisonment as the sentences were suspended, while an appeals process in Italy can take many years.
The guilty verdict ‘poses a crucial question for the freedom on which the internet is built,’ Google asserts.
They were not in Italy for the hearing. Drummond is based in California, Fleischer in Paris and Desikan in London, while De Los Reyes has since retired, Echikson told Reuters.
The complaint was brought by an Italian advocacy group for people with Down syndrome, Vivi Down, and the boy’s father, after four classmates at a Turin school uploaded a clip to Google Video showing them bullying the boy.
‘A company’s rights cannot prevail over a person’s dignity. This sentence sends a clear signal,’ public prosecutor Alfredo Robledo told reporters outside the Milan courthouse.
Down syndrome is the most common genetic cause of mental retardation, occurring in about 1 out of 700 live births.
The video was filmed with a mobile phone and posted on the site in September 2006.
‘Threat To Net Freedom’
Google argued that it removed the video immediately after being notified and cooperated with Italian authorities to help identify the bullies and bring them to justice.
It says that, as hosting platforms that do not create their own content, Google Video, YouTube and Facebook cannot be held responsible for content that others upload.
Drummond said in a statement the verdict ‘sets a dangerous precedent’ and meant ‘every employee of any internet hosting service faces similar liability.’ He said the law was clear in Italy and the European Union that ‘hosting providers like Google are not required to monitor content that they host.’
Leslie Harris, the president of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology said the ruling was an ‘extremely dangerous precedent.’
‘This is precisely the sort of action by a Western democracy that undermines Secretary Clinton’s call for global internet freedom,’ Harris said. ‘The principle that technological intermediaries should be protected from liability for content posted by users has been a cornerstone of Internet freedom. It is enshrined in both E.U. and U.S. law.
‘Most troubling, what happened it Italy is unlikely to stay in Italy. The Italian court’s actions today will surely embolden authoritarian regimes and be used justify their own efforts to suppress internet freedom.’
Fleischer said if employees were ‘criminally liable for any video on a hosting platform, when they had absolutely nothing to do with the video in question, then our liability is unlimited.’
The prosecutors accused Google of negligence, saying the video remained online for two months even though some web users had already posted comments asking for it to be taken down.
Down syndrome support group Vivi Down said in a statement that it was ‘very satisfied’ with the guilty verdict.
Censoring of websites has become a hot issue in Italy in recent months, following a spate of hate sites against officials including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The government briefly studied plans to black out internet hate sites after fan pages emerged praising an attack on the premier, but the idea was dropped after executives from Facebook, Google and Microsoft agreed to a shared code of conduct rather than legislation.
(By Manuela D’Alessandro. Additional reporting by Emilio Parodi and Eleanor Biles; writing by Stephen Brown in Rome; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton. Additional reporting by Ryan Singel.)