The ruling in a YouTube privacy case, if not overturned on appeal, could put an end to online user-generated content in parts of the world.
A judge in Milan, Italy, on Wednesday convicted three Google executives -- chief legal officer David Drummond, global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer and former CFO George Reyes -- of violating Italy's privacy laws, a decision that Google is characterizing as an attack on Internet freedom.
The charges stem from a video that was uploaded to YouTube in Italy, back in September 2006, that depicts four high school boys in a classroom in Turin, Italy, taunting another boy with a mental disability.
Google received two requests to remove the video in early November, one from a user and one from the Italian Interior Ministry, and did so within 24 hours.
Nonetheless, Francesco Cajani, a prosecutor in Milan, filed suit against four Google employees for violating Italian privacy laws. All four were found not guilty of criminal defamation. The fourth, Arvind Desikan, formerly the head of Google Video in London, was acquitted of the privacy violation charges, unlike Drummond, Fleischer, and Reyes.
The three executives will not face jail time because their six-month sentence was suspended.
In a blog post, Matt Sucherman, Google's VP and deputy general counsel for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, calls the decision "deeply troubling" and warns that by rejecting the principle that service providers should be shielded from liability for the content they host, the court's decision attacks the foundations of the Internet.
"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," he said.
The Italian ruling has stunned privacy and legal experts. "I have to tell you that I was shocked when I saw the decision this morning," said Lisa J. Sotto, a partner at Hunton & Williams LLP. "I really thought this was a no-brainer. The conviction is truly astonishing. ...It places an enormous burden on the Internet as a vehcle of free expression. It challenges basic principles of freedom of expression and freedom of speech."
J. Trevor Hughes, executive director of International Association of Privacy Professionals, also says he was surprised and shocked by the decision. "I think there are some very serious and important questions that a lot of mulinationals and Web companies are asking right now about Web content and individual liability for corporate actions," he said.
Hughes says it's noteworthy that the Google executives were charged as individuals. While there have been instances of this in the U.S., like the Enron case, he says, there is generally a knowledge and action standard that applies. "It's difficult to see how an individual could be responsible for the acts of a company...when that individual had no knowledge of the video being posted," he said.
Sotto observes that the decision in part may be politically motivated by general resentment of Google's power and success. "I think there's an unfortunate movement afoot to bash Google because they've been so successful," she said.
Coincidentally, Google on Tuesday revealed that European antitrust regulators had opened an investigation of the company following complaints from competitors.
Sucherman says that Google plans to appeal the ruling.
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