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Google execs guilty on privacy charges

February 24, 2010

(Updated 1:31 p.m. ET)

In a decision that is expected to have ramifications worldwide, an Italian judge convicted three Google executives on privacy violations in Milan court today. Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer and two other executives were found guilty of failing to comply with Italian privacy code in allowing a disparaging video to be posted online. A fourth defendant was acquitted.

Google described the decision as an “astonishing” attack on freedom of expression on the Internet. All three will appeal the decision.

Judge Oscar Magi ordered a six-month suspended jail sentence and fines for Fleischer, Chief Legal Officer David Drummond and former Google Italy board member George De Los Reyes. The three were absolved of defamation charges.

Outside the Milan courthouse, public prosecutor Alfredo Robledo said the decision sends a clear signal. "A company's rights cannot prevail over a person's dignity.”
 
The trial stems from the posting of a video to Google Video—a YouTube predecessor—that showed teenage boys taunting a classmate with Down syndrome. Prosecutors charged that the executives did not do enough to keep the offensive video off its site.

The case opened the door for a debate about who is responsible for content posted to the Internet. EU law is cloudy concerning user-generated content.

In a statement, Peter Fleischer said the ruling sets a dangerous precedent. “If company employees like me can be held criminally liable for any video on a hosting platform…then our liability is unlimited.” He said today’s decision raises questions for the operators of many Internet platforms.

The ruling has provoked reactions from privacy and legal experts worldwide. “It is quite hard to comment on such an incredible sentence,” said Rome lawyer and privacy expert Rocco Panetta of Panetta & Associati, who described the sentence as “most interesting from a legal point of view” and one that “needs to be assessed with prudence.”

A Centre for Information Policy Leadership advisor likened the decision to prosecuting the post office for hate mail that is sent in the post. “I find it worrying that the chief privacy officer who had nothing to do with the video has been found guilty,” said Richard Thomas. “It is unrealistic to expect firms to monitor everything that goes online.”