Three current and former Google executives have been convicted of privacy violations in Italy
Three Google executives were convicted on Wednesday of violating privacy laws by allowing disturbing footage of a disabled Italian boy being bullied to be posted on the internet. The ruling was the first of its kind in history and was condemned by critics as “the biggest threat to internet freedom we have seen”.
America’s ambassador to Italy, David Throne, condemned the decision, sayingthat freedom of the internet was vital for democracy.
This founding principal of internet freedom is vital for democracies which recognise freedom of expression and is safeguarded by all who take this value to heart.
”In January Secretary of State Hilary Clinton expressed clearly that freedom of the internet is a human right that is to be protected in free societies.
”In all countries it is important to keep a careful eye out for abuse, nevertheless offensive material should not become as excuse to violate this fundamental right.”
The trial centred on footage posted on Google Videos, of an autistic teenager and who was being bullied by four other boys, at a Turin school.
The footage was posted in September 2006 and became the most viewed where it remained for two months before finally being removed.
Prosecutors in Milan brought the case after being contacted by the charity Viva Down and argued that the boys privacy had been violated and that Google should have removed the footage quicker than it eventually did.
In the footage the boy was seen cowering as he was punched and kicked before one of the youths attacking him made a mocking call to the Viva Down charity.
The three executives found guilty by judge Oscar Magi were David Carl Drummond, former Google Italy and now senior vice president, George De Los Reyes, a retired financial executive and privacy director Peter Fleischer.
The three were found guilty of violating privacy laws and given six month suspended sentences, while they were cleared of defamation. A fourth executive Arvind Desikan, an executive with Google video Europe was cleared.
None of the four was in court for the behind closed doors hearing which had begun two years ago and the judge ruled that the verdict should be published in leading Italian newspapers.
A claim for compensation from Viva Down, a charity that defends the rights of those with Downs Syndrome, was rejected as the executives were found not guilty of defamation while at an earlier hearing the victim’s family also withdrew a claim for damages. Vivi Down was a plaintiff because it was named by the boys in the video, a lawyer for the group said. But the prosecutor said on Wednesday the boy had autism, not Downs as widely reported during the three years of the case.
The events in the footage took place shortly before Google bought YouTube in 2006 and all four men denied wrong doing.
Lawyers for California based Google had argued they were not responsible for material uploaded onto the web and the sheer volume of material which would have to be previewed before being posted made it impossible to do so.
The four bullies were identified and later convicted in a youth court.
In a statement from Paris where he is now based Mr Fleischer said: “The judge has decided I’m primarily responsible for the actions of some teenagers who uploaded a reprehensible video to Google video.”
He added that he found it particularly ironic that “as privacy director I have been found guilty of breaching privacy”.
After the hearing prosecutor Alfredo Robledo, who had asked for Mr Drummond to be jailed for a year, said: “We are very satisfied because with this trial we have dealt with a serious problem, that is, protecting a person and that should always come above business freedom.
“The protection of an individual is fundamental to today’s society and business freedom should never come above that of person’s dignity and that is what this trial has shown.”
However Marco Pancini, a spokesman for Google Italy, said: “This verdict is an attack on the fundamental principles of liberty on which internet freedom is built.
“We will be appealing against this verdict because the people in question had nothing to do with the uploading of the footage, they did not film it and they did not view it.
“The executives took on this case with courage and dignity despite the excesses of justice – the responsibility of what goes on the web is always down to the person who uploads it.”
Labour MP Tom Watson said: “This is the biggest threat to internet freedom we have seen in Europe. The only people who will support this decision are Silvio Berlusconi and the governments of China and Iran. It effectively breaks the internet in Italy.”
The ruling was the latest in a series of blow to Google which came a day after the European Union said that it was investigating the company over allegations that its search engine demoted other sites.
Last year Google also came under fire from France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy after the company announced it planned to scan French books and put them into it’s internet library.