Google’s legal and privacy chiefs have sentences overturned by Italian court

Three current and former Google executives have been acquitted on appeal by an Italian court, over a depressing case that involved a video of an autistic child being bullied.

Back in February 2010, the executives – legal chief David Drummond, privacy counsel Peter Fleischer and George Reyes, who was already Google’s ex-CFO at that point – were given suspended six-month sentences over alleged privacy offences. On Friday, an appeals court quashed the verdict.

“We’re very happy that the verdict has been reversed and our colleagues ‘ names have been cleared,” a Google spokesperson said afterwards. “Of course, while we are delighted with the appeal, our thoughts continue to be with the family who have been through the ordeal.”

The ordeal in question happened in 2006, when schoolchildren in Turin uploaded to Google Video a video of one of their classmates, an autistic boy, being bullied. The video went up in September of that year, but Google only received a complaint two months later, at which point it took the video down.

The person who uploaded the video was sentenced to 10 months’ community service, but the Italian courts also pressed on with cases against four Google executives, who had nothing to do with the video other than being Google executives (the fourth, who escaped conviction, was marketing executive Arvind Desikan).

The thrust of the case was that the video stayed up for two months despite other users having complained in the video’s comments thread – not, it should be noted, the same thing as a formal complaint.

To the dismay of Drummond, Fleischer and Reyes – as well as anyone who worries about user-generated content platform liability – the court went on to convict them for breaking Italian privacy law, despite the fact that the video was taken down shortly after the complaint was received. The executives were however exonerated on defamation charges.

Google said at the time that it would appeal, and this clearly worked, albeit slowly.

It is probably worth pointing out that that, at the time of the convictions, Google was engaged in a low-level war with billionaire media baron and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was busy making life hard for the U.S. web company in various ways.

Just in the few months before the convictions, Berlusconi’s Mediaset broadcaster had won a copyright infringement suit against YouTube, and his government had made it illegal for websites to show videos without a license.