Google Execs Found Guilty of Violating Italian Privacy Laws

In a ruling that could have broad implications for video hosting sites that operate in Italy, three Google (s GOOG) executives were found guilty of violating privacy laws yesterday for a video that was uploaded to Google Video by one of its users. Although Google has already said it would appeal the decision, the ruling could set a negative precedent if not overturned.

The case centers around a cellphone video of a disabled teenager being bullied by classmates that was uploaded to Google Video in 2006. The EU and Italy have passed legislation to protect Internet service providers from legal claims against third-party uploads, as long they take down content when complaints are filed. The video in question was uploaded on Sept. 8, 2006, but Google did not receive complaints about it until Nov. 6, 2006, at which time it took the video down.

In addition to removing the video, Google also cooperated with Italian police to help them identify the person responsible for uploading the video. She, along with the other students involved, were sentenced to 10 months community service by a court in Turin.

But the story didn’t stop there. About a year ago, David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president and chief legal officer; George Reyes, its former chief financial officer; Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy counsel; and Arvind Desikan, an executive from the Google Video team in London were called to trial and charged with defamation and invasion of privacy violations for hosting the video. And yesterday, Drummond, Fleischer and Reyes were convicted of failing to comply with Italy’s privacy code.

“In essence this ruling means that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload,” Matt Sucherman, Google’s VP and Deputy General Counsel for EMEA, wrote on the official Google blog. Calling the decision “astonishing,” he said that Google would vigorously appeal the ruling. But if the decision is allowed to stand, there could be deeper problems for hosting providers and the Internet in general, Sucherman writes:

“[We] are deeply troubled by this conviction for another equally important reason. It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built. Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming. European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and support free speech while protecting personal privacy. 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.”

The 2006 video case isn’t the only issue that Google has had in Italy recently. In December, YouTube lost a copyright infringement suit to Mediaset, for which the Italian broadcasting firm is seeking damages of €500 million (about $730 million).

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