Italian Court Convicts Google Executives for Autism Video

February 24, 2010

A Milan court convicted three Google Inc executives on Wednesday for violating the privacy of an Italian boy with autism 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.

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’s 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.

Vivi Down was a plaintiff because it was named by the boys in the bullying video, a lawyer for the group said. However, Google’s Echikson and the prosecutor said on Wednesday the boy actually had autism, not Down’s as widely reported during the three years of the case.

“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.

The video was filmed with a mobile phone and posted on the site in September 2006.

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.” [IJ Ed. Note: The law is essentially the same in the U.S.]

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.

Censoring of web sites 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.

(Additional reporting by Emilio Parodi and Eleanor Biles; writing by Stephen Brown in Rome; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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