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Italy Convicts Three Google Executives for Privacy Violations

Last week, an Italian magistrate convicted three Google executives for violating Italian privacy laws for a video uploaded in late 2006 to Google Video, which showed a disabled child being bullied by other schoolchildren in Turin. Each got suspended sentences of six months in jail. This is the first case worldwide to hold the company's executives criminally responsible for the content posted on its system. Vivi Down, an Italian group representing people with Down syndrome, and the boy's father in Milan pushed for a criminal prosecution against four individual Google employees (one of them was charged only with the dismissed defamation charges).

The court dismissed the allegation of criminal defamation but upheld a charge of illegally handling personal data, deciding that under EU stringent data protection law, replicated in the Italian legislation, Google needed prior authority before distributing that personal data. In other words, any ISP or Net intermediary working within Italy is now co-responsible for the legality of content containing “personal data” (video, text, audio or other data) before anyone has complained about the content. Google has been considered a media company (that is, a content provider, a publisher), and therefore responsible for any content it publishes. Rather, the common opinion and practice on the Internet  (as pointed out also by Google itself) is that Google is simply a form of Internet service provider, and as such not directly responsible for material it hosts — a distinction crucial to the Italian decision. Also, the ruling seems to contradict a same EU directive on electronic commerce that gives service providers safe harbor from liability for the content they host.

Prosecutors said Google waited to remove the video until after complaints to the police by Vivi Down, whose name was mentioned by the boys in the video. The video was recorded in May 2006 and uploaded on September 8 by the same students involved, since then identified thanks to that video and sentenced in December 2007 to 10 months of community work and probation. The video remained online for about two months, when — as shown by actual email-records (in Italian) — at 5:20 pm on November 6, 2006, an Italian user alerted for the first time the Google staff about that questionable material. The video was ultimately removed about 24 hours later, after a quick e-mail consultation with the company headquarters in Mountain View, California, and two hours after they received a formal complaint from the Italian police, also alerted by the Vivi Down association.

The vast majority of Italian online sources and bloggers were furious, talking about a «heavy attack against Net freedom and ISP neutrality», while most media commentators openly supported the Google position that this sentence is imposing a “preventive censorship role” to Internet providers. Marco Pancini, Google Italia Policy Counsel, said: «We are deeply disturbed by such decision. Our executives had nothing to do with that video. And the judges are questioning the same basic principles upon which the Internet was built.» Others pointed out that now Italy is closer to the Chinese stump on freedom of expression.

The court has 90 days to make public the sentence motivations and an appeal has already been announced by Google lawyers: many legal experts believe that the sentence will eventually be reversed or overturned.

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