Google Says Conviction Of Execs In Italy Is Attack On Internet Freedom
The verdict "attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built," the company said in a blog post. "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."
The convicted executives -- chief legal officer David Drummond, global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer and former chief financial officer George Reyes -- who were tried in absentia, were sentenced to six months in prison. But Italian law provides that sentences of less than three years for first-time offenders are automatically suspended. A fourth executive, Arvind Desikan, the former head of Google Video in Europe, was acquitted.
The case stemmed from a 2006 incident in which a high school student posted a clip of himself and three others bullying a 17-year-old with Down syndrome. The three-minute video, which went live in September, was taken down Nov. 7, after Google received complaints about it.
Fleischer, who has been writing about the case on his personal blog, says the ruling "sets a very dangerous precedent."
"If company employees like me can be held 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," he wrote Wednesday. Fleischer and the other Google executives will appeal.
Google also says that European law gives Web hosts safe harbor from prosecution for hosting unlawful material, provided they take down the content when they learn about it. "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 company said Wednesday.
Leslie Harris, president of the digital rights group Center for Democracy & Technology, warned that the verdict could have wide-ranging ramifications. "What happened it Italy is unlikely to stay in Italy," she said in a statement. "The Italian court's actions today will surely embolden authoritarian regimes and be used to justify their own efforts to suppress Internet freedom."
While Italy has prosecuted other individuals for violating the country's privacy law, this case appears to mark the first time that corporate executives have been held liable based on content uploaded by users, says Trevor Hughes, executive director of the International Association of Privacy Professionals.
"It's a tremendously challenging decision," Hughes says. Among other problems with the case, the Italian authorities don't appear to have had any basis to single out three executives who were prosecuted, he says. "There's an apparent lack of connection between the facts and who was actually brought up on charges," he says.
Hughes adds that the ruling has stunned many in the industry. "The conversations have all been around just how astonished people are that in Europe a privacy violation can lead to this type of exposure."